Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgving Past

So the world turned another round and Thanksgiving is upon me once more.  A day of feasting, of family and friends, of being thankful for the times we have and for the times we've had.

As always I recall how the family gathered in the past.  My father's two brothers, their wives and children, would all gather for our feast - a table covered with so much food that it seemed impossible to be consumed.  The brothers would gather around the turkey and ham as they were being carved for the platters, occasionally being sampled by one or another to ensure a consistent quality, or so they claimed.

The feast became and increasing logistic problem as the families grew, necessitating ever larger tables and increasing quantities of food, most of which was digested while lying about in a soporific daze. Eventually, as the children became adults, married, and produced even more family members it became impossible to gather. Death and debility also played a role.

My own brothers began, first with our parents and then without, to gather our families to continue the tradition. This did not last, owing to the dispersal of members across the country and the difficulty of coordinated travel for a single gathering. The pattern established by our parents seemed to be repeating down the years.

This year  we share Thanksgiving with my nephews and their families since my own children gather at Christmas time instead.  As we sit at the table I will look across the corn, mashed potatoes, turkey or ham, and remember the sage words of advice my father gave to me years ago at one of the earliest Thanksgivings I can remember.

"There's too much good stuff here, don't waste your appetite on the rolls."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Robotic Dominance

Just like the old SF stories predicted, the robots have enslaved the human race and are bending us to their will.

What, you doubt me?  Consider the antiquated comet-chasing Rosetta and her child, Philae, that were launched twelve years ago*.  Both are simple robotic space explorers with fewer brains than the tiny cellphone you are holding .  The two vehicles are nothing more than simple machines, fabrications with limited autonomous ability that are sitting three hundred million miles away, doing science and sending data back to the scientists on Earth. They are just robots; cold, hard machinery, looking nothing like Terminator.

And yet....

There's a charm about the pair - the maternal Rosetta and her stumbling, fallen, and then lost child. Philae made one last valiant effort to cry out in chirps and clicks to Rosetta as her batteries died and she, forlorn, went into that dark sleep a week ago.  Only a  heartless monster would dare declare that they had no emotional reaction to Philae's plight, that they weren't praying for some miracle that would restore her to health, hoping that Rosetta could somehow acquire Philae's location.  Say that you didn't think of the pair as more than machines and I will doubt your humanity.

Or consider Roomba, a senseless little vacuum cleaner that wanders around, amusing the cats and sucking up all the dust and stray Cheetos. Try telling a Roomba owner that she's just a machine and you would be surprised at their reactions.  Instead of falling back in terrified apprehension, people have been decorating them, putting outfits on them, and even NAMING them, for God's sake!    The owners are treated them as pets, not cold, soulless machines.

Or how about the ubiquitous little single-purpose robotic apps that hide in your computer, TV, telephone, oven, car, refrigerator, and a thousand other objects?  Robots and their software analogues have become so smoothly integrated into our daily lives that we are no longer consciously aware of their presence.  Because of their oh-so-willing and nearly invisible help we don't have to think about the details of our daily lives.  No, the ever-helpful robots are quite willing to do the banal and ordinary for us, lifting the burdens of memory, smoothing our schedules, marking the beat of our lives and all the while endearing themselves, charming all of us into willing acceptance as they bend us to their will.

We are lost!

*Roughly five technology generations ago


Friday, November 14, 2014

Watching Rosetta's Child Stumble

November 13, 2014

11:00 AM  I am writing this as I wait for the first images to arrive at the Cologne control center from Philae on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This receipt will be more amazing than those terribly black and white images beamed back from the first moon landing*.

11:15 AM  Amazing to me is the incredibly difficult math involved to calculate the path Rosetta had to take to intercept the comet, match its tumbling motion, and place its child, Philae ever-so-delicately on its surface.  One cannot say “landing” because the gravitational attraction is so minimal that they'll have to fire a harpoon to anchor her to the surface.

11:30 AM I can’t believe how calm everyone seems to be as the moment approaches.  Yeah, I know whatever event takes place has been delayed by a 300 million mile journey – seven hours in the past – but the NOW, when we will actually witness first light is historic, monumental, incredible, and a lot of explanatory words I simply can’t think of at the moment because my bladder insists I leave the screen while my mind says “Stay and watch.” I just know that something will happen the instant I leave.

11:45 AM  Something must be wrong (and I am not talking about my bladder.)  There's a group assembling in the center of the room while others are taking seats. There's a bit of engineer hand-waving, some head nodding, and arms crossing,  Nobody seems to be racing for the bathroom to relieve their nervousness. The tension is electric and WHY THE HELL IS THERE NO VOICE OVER EXPLAINING WHAT IS GOING ON?

 Oops!  They cut the live feed and now announce there will be a press briefing at 1300 so I can finally run to the bathroom.

01:00 PM  No press conference.  A quick tour of the internet reveals no illuminating information about our poor lander. Lunch and back to working on the novel revisions.

02:30 PM  Apparently I forgot to remind myself and the conference is underway.  Lots of data received they announce happily. There's a gleeful announcement that Philae bounced twice (just like any toddler) but everyone overjoyed that it landed somewhere.  Bottom line: I have to wait till morning to learn more.

All in all an exciting day, made even more special by the many,  many references to science fiction, quotes from Star Trek, and the smiles on the scientists' faces.  No matter what happens on the morrow this was a monumental achievement for the human race.

Now, back to work.

*Well, at least the technology will be better

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Thoughts at World Fantasy Convention

Not much time available with all that's going on down here in Crystal City, so this will be brief.

I love the green rooms and bars at most conventions since they are the places where I can meet face-to-face with people of whom I never see enough.  Sure, a lot of the conversations with other writers is about business - contracts, markets, etc, but these casual conversations are more often the incubators of story ideas or character sketches.  I can have extended conversations not possible through limited electronic media and learn things I'd never expected to know, like the gait of an African zombie as opposed to one of the Caribbean persuasion.

Not once have I encountered an author so wrapped up in their importance that they wouldn't have a kind word or bit of advice for another.  Often, when pressed, they'll admit to the same self-doubts, feelings of inadequacy, and frustration that I occasionally face.

Sure, among the group of writers there are some assholes, a few racists, and a lot of ignorance - just like in any broad segment of the general populations and, on too many embarrassing occasions, myself (although never with malice aforethought.)  But in general I've found writers to be quite ordinary in everything save their ability to spin a captivating tale, pose a challenging question, or play a terrific round of Cards Against Humanity!

When I walk down the aisles of the dealers' room, a local bookstore or library and read the bindings I see the names of friends, acquaintances, and people I've met at least once.  The same names appear among my facebook "friends," or are listed on my phone or email directory/ Many appear on the frontispiece of one of my signed copies of their books.  I sometimes hear them blouvating on a podcast, in a web interview, or even see their names mentioned in a newspaper or magazine.

They are all writers and I am proud that most consider me one of them.