Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Some Thoughts on "The Expanse"

Tonight the Syfy channel debuted a new series titled "The Expanse." After a long period in which the channel broadcast nothing of interest to me (sorry, I didn't watch "Sharknado"), they've finally come up with a decent show.

Not that I don't have issues with the show.

I'm not expecting innovative science fiction. The show is based on a series of books, which the authors intended to be space opera. Now, space opera can be a lot of fun. But it's focused on action, not new concepts.

Most of my own science fiction reading took place 30 years ago. Yet I've seen nothing in "The Expanse" that wasn't explored by other writers long ago.

For example, the independence of the inhabitants of the Belt was explored in Larry Niven's "Gil the ARM" series. He also wrote a lot about how humans would be changed by living in varying gravity. War between Earth and its colonies was one feature of Samuel R. Delaney's Triton. And so on.

No, space opera like The Expanse (the book) or "The Expanse" (the TV series) lives or dies on action and its characters.

I've only seen the first episode, but so far the producers have done a satisfactory job. The sets (most of which are probably CGI) are too pretty and too large, but this is TV. I did read the first book in this series, and most Belters are supposed to live in cramped, rather shabby spaces.

(SPOILER) In a later episode, Detective Miller is fired and leaves Ceres. He carries everything he owns in a single bag. We only saw one short scene of Miller in his lodgings, but it didn't look like the apartment of someone who could fit all his belongings in a backpack.

But this is TV. People want to see pretty pictures, and CGI can make us lots of pretty pictures.

There are also some aspects that they're just not going to get right. Gravity, for one thing. Ceres is supposed to be under .3 of Earth gravity. You'd walk differently under .3 g. But, even if the show could do that, it would look very strange. Another gravity-related issue is the attenuated bodies of the Belters. But there just aren't that many tall, extremely thin actors available--not good ones, anyway. So most of the Belters are just skinny-but-normal actors.

By the way, wouldn't low gravity attenuate the rat and the bird? I don't know, but I assume it would.

One thing that the casting director could do, however, is give us more variety. I counted one African-American who had lines, and a few actors that I assumed were South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, etc.). I didn't see a single East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, etc.). Most of the cast were Anglos.

If nothing else, more diversity would help us tell the actors apart. For example, on the shuttlecraft Knight, there was a crew of five. One was female, and the other four were all white guys with black hair! All of them needed a shave (or had full beards). Yes, one (the assistant engineer) was heavier than the rest, another (the pilot) always wore a watch cap, and the medic...well, I knew it was him because he wasn't a pretty as the lead, Holden. But why couldn't one of them have been Chinese? Or just an Anglo with red hair? In fact, the only blonde I recall in the entire cast was Holden's navigator girlfriend!

One last thing: we know how zero-g sex works. Yes, some of our Astronauts have had sex in space. And you don't do it like Holden and his blonde navigator girlfriend did it.

Sex involves thrusting, so there's an equal and opposite reaction. Our Astronauts found that you need to harness the participants together to keep them from flying apart. (I assume it's a stretchy, rubber harness.)

But again: show business! A harness would probably look like fetish or bondage gear.

Well, I expect to keep watching "The Expense"...at least for a few more episodes.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

An Article for the Chester County Day newspaper

For the past dozen years, I have written articles for a local charity.  Chester County Day is, perhaps, the oldest house tour in the entire USA.  (This tour was not held every year in its early days, so some other tours organizers argue that they have the oldest, continuously-held tour.)  Profits from the tour benefit the Chester County Hospital, which is in southeast Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.

To publicize the tour, the organizers distribute an annual newspaper.  This is where the following article appeared.  However, due to space considerations, this article was truncated.  Worse, several typos were added when it was edited down.

This year's Chester County Day was held on Saturday 3 October.  Hurricane Joaquin made it a damp day for a house tour, but it went on nonetheless.  And, for anyone who is interested, here is the full article I wrote for the event.

The People Behind Chester County Day

by Tony Conaway

We anticipate that between 3,000 and 4,000 people will purchase tickets for the 75th Annual Chester County Day. It takes hundreds more to put on this event, the oldest and longest-running house tour in the country.

The revenue from Chester County Day is donated to the Chester County Hospital. This year it is earmarked for the Hospital’s Cardiac program. Appropriately, The Day is run by the Women’s Auxiliary to the Hospital.

Each year, the first Women’s Auxiliary group to begin preparations for The Day is the House Committee. The House Committee is responsible for contacting the owners of the sites you visit. The members of this committee start searching for suitable houses in January of each year.

The criterion for selecting a house for the tour has never changed. A house on the tour should be:
·      An early structure furnished with antiques
·      An historic home (either by use or by association)
·      Or, a newer structure with significant architectural features or collections
Of course, a selected house must also be accessible and have sufficient parking nearby.

Once potential houses are identified, a formal tour request letter is sent to each homeowner, inviting them to participate. If the homeowner is willing, a visit is then set up. “That’s the fun part,” says House Committee Chair Debbie Hess. “Meeting the homeowners, marveling at the uniqueness and charm of their homes and then getting to know them as we work together towards the first Saturday in October. We add public landmarks, lunch stops, rest stops, and covered bridges nearby to complete the tour.”

Once the houses on the tour are selected, several other committees can begin their work. One such is the committee that produces the newspaper that you are reading. The Chester County Day newspaper has been edited by Eric Chandlee Wilson for the past 25 years. The proofreader and assistant editor, Michael Pillagalli, has worked on many Chester County Day committees, so he knows The Day well.  He is ably assisted by Robin Young. Not only are there may logistical challenges in putting together the newspaper, each article must be assigned to a volunteer writer.

It may surprise you that the money paid for Chester County Day tickets does not cover all the expenses. The Sponsorship Committee has an important job, convincing businesses and individuals to donate (either cash or with needed goods or services).

Many people make their donation by buying advertisements in the Chester County Day paper. In this way, they publically demonstrate their support for the Hospital. The donations and advertisements allow the full cost of the Chester County Day tickets to go to the hospital. All expenses for The Day come from these sponsors.

The current Sponsorship Committee chair, Marie Robinson, notes that “I have learned that there are many loyal sponsors who happily return each year, but others need to receive some personal contact. My job is to follow us with everyone who had been there for us in the past and to recruit new sponsors.” Among her new initiatives is the House Sponsors program, which includes “two builders who had worked on some of the homes on this year’s tour. The have special promotions letting people know that they have worked on a particular house featured on Chester County Day.”

Once the houses have been selected, someone has to figure out how to direct visitors to and from each house.  Lon Pritchard has handled this job for years, along with the heads of the Parking and Marking Committees. He also serves as our Cartographer, creating the all-important map that visitors use on The Day. Each year, he does his best to select a route that “shares the ambience of Chester County in as relaxing, natural mood as possible. Some less traveled (but safe) roads are used to achieve this task.” The continued growth of houses and business in Chester County makes this more difficult every year.

While the tour is a lot of fun, its ultimate purpose is to earn money for the Hospital. Naturally, the event has to be publicized. That is the job of Kathleen Malloy and Jeanne Reith.

One of the most effective forms of publicity is the slide lecture. Held at multiple locations throughout the county, this allows hundreds of people to preview the tour. To facilitate this, Photographer Jeff Dippel takes the slides.
Pat Mehok is the official Lecturer, who narrates the slide show.

Tickets are sold at a few sites, such as the lobby of the Chester County Hospital, where volunteers staff a table. Tickets are also sold by mail. Joan Atkins handles the mail-out tickets, and is also Business Manager for The Day. The Business Manager has a wide range of responsibilities, from seeing that the tickets are printed correctly, directing the bills to the Treasurer, answering all phone and email queries about The Day, and – after the event – writing up the final reports.

Right before The Day, signs are posted directing traffic. This is the job of the Marking Committee, chaired by Rob Miller. Of course, they must take those signs down after The Day, too!

Unless you are walking to visit the sites, everyone on The Day arrives by automobile. Naturally, all those cars need a place to park. Parking is handled by Steve Oakes and Herb Schwabe. This year, Herb is also doing the important job of notifying every municipality on the tour, some of which may assign a police officer to handle traffic. The Parking Committee is always looking for additional volunteers, who are willing to spend The Day working outside.

Finally, at each of the 30 to 40 houses on the tour, there is a greeter, plus a guide in each room that is open to the public. Arranging a greeter and multiple guides for each house is a massive undertaking. Linda Gibson has handled the job of assembling and placing the guides. Sarah Finnaren is in charge of the greeters.

As you can see, Chester County Day could not exist without the efforts of its many volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact the current Co-Chairs, Louise Milewski or Karen Weber. You can do so by phoning the Business Office at (610) 431-5301.

- END -

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

R.I.P., Rob...No, Not That Rob! The Other One!

Here's an odd coincidence: two men with similar names, whose obituaries appeared just one day apart.

Rob Lukens died Saturday of cancer, at the young age of 42.

Bob Lucas died last Friday, also of cancer, at the age of 75.

I knew the first one. Rob Lukens worked his way up from intern to president of the Chester County Historical Society in Pennsylvania.

He worked at other jobs over the years, from head of collections at Philadelphia's Chemical Heritage Foundation to the U.S. Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington, D.C. But he always came back to the Historical Society here in West Chester, PA.

I was one of those weird teenagers who did research in the Historical Society. Back in my youth, it was a dusty, underfunded mess. A lot of historical societies are like that.

Rob Lukens took that Historical Society and turned it into a vital, modern museum. He had an infectious energy that made you want to like him. He gave public lectures and wrote columns on history. He even hosted a weekly radio show on history on the local radio station.

And he left us much too soon.

Now, the OTHER Bob Lucas -- full name Robert A. Lucas -- I did not know. He ran a bar in Camden, NJ, called Donkey's Place.

They served a limited menu as well as drinks, specializing in cheesesteak sandwiches. The television show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown featured Donkey's, and claimed that their cheesesteak might be the best in the area.

Which is interesting. But I didn't know Mr. Lucas, or ever eat at his Camden restaurant. His family also owns a restaurant, Donkey's Too, in Medford, NJ. I might have eaten there -- I've eaten at a lot of places in my time, some of which friends brought me to -- but I don't think so.

While I've forgotten the names of dozens of the places I've dined at, if your name is memorable, I recall it. Chink's. Chubby's. Donkey's. These I'd probably recall.

By the way, Chink's Steaks in North Philadelphia finally changed its controversial name this spring. It's now Joe's Steaks. Which is a name I could certainly forget.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Siri Is Funnier Than You Are

I've decided I want a new job. I want to be a joke writer for machines!

Understand, I've been a stand-up comic and written my own jokes. I've also written jokes for others.

I even sold some jokes that I co-wrote to Jay Leno -- jokes he used in his monologue on The Tonight Show.

But I never imagined I could sell jokes to Apple.

The new iOS 8 has actually made Siri funny!

Yes, your phone and your iPad are now funnier than you are.

An article by Marlow Stern in The Daily Beast compiled these clever responses to the sort of inappropriate questions that users posit to Siri:   

If you ask Siri the following: “What’s zero divided by zero?” you’ll get one helluva response:
“Imagine that you have zero cookies and you split them evenly among zero friends. How many cookies does each person get? See? It doesn’t make sense. And Cookie Monster is sad that there are no cookies, and you are sad that you have no friends.”

This witty—and biting—rejoinder is only one in a long line of funny replies. Here are some other examples of questions/statements you can pose to Siri that will yield fun answers:

You: “Read me a haiku?” 
Siri: “Sometimes I wonder / What it would be like to say / “I’d prefer not to.’
You: “I’m naked.”
Siri: “I don’t understand what you mean by ‘naked.’ Or at least I’m going to pretend that I don’t.”

You: “I’m drunk.”
Siri: “Just don’t breathe on me.”
You: “Are you Her?” [Referencing the movie]
Siri: “I’m afraid not, [your name], but she could never know you better than I do.”

You: What’s your favorite animal?”
Siri: “Maybe a tauntaun. But only when I’m cold.”

You: “Can I borrow some money?”
Siri: “[Your name], you know everything I have is yours.”
You: “Who’s your daddy?”
Siri: “I know this must mean something… everybody keeps saying this.”
You: “Open the pod bay door.”
Siri: “Without your space helmet, [your name], you’re going to find this rather… breathtaking.”
You: “What are you doing later?”
Siri: “I’m working on some pickup lines.”

Now, all I have to do is figure out where I send my application....

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Four Anthologies, And Counting

In case you're keeping track, I now have works of fiction in four different anthologies.

I have two short, humorous works in Chester County Fiction.

I have a piece of historical fiction in Unclaimed Baggage.

I have a Young Adult Horror tale in Fear's Accomplice. This story was written under the tutelage of Jonathan Maberry, a multiple Bram Stoker Award-winner.

And now I have a noir story in Locked and Loaded: Both Barrels, Volume III. This anthology was supposed to have been out last November. I just received my copies yesterday.

But publishing is an odd business. I've heard of much greater delays than six months.

All of these anthologies are available from Amazon. And I have several additional stories being considered for anthologies.

More to come!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings, Part Three

I gave a reading tonight at the Chester County Book Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It went well, but I learned a few additional tips to add to the previous two posts in this series.

First off, since I brought three different selections to read from, I've started adding an "approximate reading time" to the top of each piece.  One of the factors in deciding which piece to read should be how much time you have.

It's pretty obvious which choice to make.  If you're pressed for time, choose a short piece.  You should also pick a short piece if you sense that the audience is getting restless.

On the other hand, if the audience is definitely there to see YOU, then choose a piece long enough to satisfy them.  (Although it's always good to leave them wanting more.)

The other thing I'm adding to the top is where this piece was first published.  Maybe you've only published in a few places, and you're sure you won't forget.  But, if you're like me, you've published your work in many, many places.  Magazines, online sites, anthologies, and your own books - after a certain amount of publications, it gets hard to remember them all.

I also add the name of the publisher, as in: this story - Cute As a Speckled Pup Under a Red Wagon - was just published in the anthology "Locked and Loaded, Volume III," published by One Eye Press, best known as the publishers of Shotgun Honey.

I've also added amusing or relevant detail, like so: this piece of flash fiction - Relentless But Regretful - was just published in the online magazine Saturday Night Reader, for which I made a big $5. (But hey, at least they paid me, and did it when they promised they would!)

These may seem like small things...and they are.  But the better you prepare yourself for your reading, the more confident you'll be.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

An Observation

Damn, I'm going to miss David Letterman when he goes off the air.

I may have to throw things off the roof by myself.

(By the way, I co-wrote and sold some jokes to Jay Leno when he was host of "The Tonight Show." But writing for Letterman was the real goal, and I never made it.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What You Shouldn't Have Touched Your Lips to on New Year's Eve

Happy 2015, everyone!

And I hope you didn't catch anything while partying on New Year's Eve.

I spent New Year's Eve managing a comedy club. And, as usual, I handed out noisemakers to the customers when our late show ended, just before midnight.

I'm sure that many customers don't realize that many of the hats and noisemakers were left over from last year. You see, the profit margin in the club and restaurant business isn't great. If you can save a few dollars by picking up the hats and noisemakers customers leave behind, you probably do so. And you save them for next year.

I, however, don't recycle the horns. Once someone has put their lips on it, if they don't take it with them, it goes in the trash. I recycle the hats, and the manual noisemakers, like ratchet-spinners and those weird clapping hands that became popular a few years back.

But some restaurants and clubs recycle everything. Worse, they don't even store them hygienically.

I wrap my leftover hats and noisemakers back in the plastic bags they came in. Then I store the whole thing in a sealed plastic storage box, and put it away for next year.

But I've seen places that just throw them in an open box and stuff it in a storage room. Next to the sticky traps for rats and mice. I wouldn't want to put my lips on a horn that had been sitting in a dusty closet for a year where rats could crawl over it!

However, there's another issue.

We act under the assumption that the horns that come in a plastic bag are clean and hygienic.

That may not be the case.

It's probably true for things made in the USA. Nowadays. But for cheap horns made overseas? I wouldn't count on it.

And it didn't use to be the case even here in the States.

Years ago, when I was in college, I spent one summer working in a factory that made styrofoam cups.

It was an awful factory job. The company supplied each worker with earplugs because of the never-ending noise. And they had to hire four people for each open position. They knew that three of those four would quit before their first shift was over! THAT'S how unpleasant this job was.

To make matters worse, I was hired for the swing shift. One week on the morning shift, next week on the evening shift, next week on the overnight shift. And repeat. The factory was unheated and without air conditioning, so it was cold at night and blistering hot in the day.

I stuck it out for most of a summer. The pay wasn't great, but it was better than most jobs I could get as a nineteen-year-old.

My job was to stand at a machine, scoop up two stacks of styrofoam cups as they came off the line, and seal them in a plastic bag. (Over and over, for eight hours.)

What surprised me was that no one washed their hands. To stack them quickly, you put your dirty fingers or thumbs inside the cups. And the factory bosses didn't care as long as your hands weren't so grimy that you left dark fingerprints on the white cups!

I knew that no one washed a styrofoam cup that they took out of a sealed bag. They assumed it was sterile. These weren't.

Well, that factory is long gone now. (Last I heard it was a superfund site, from the chemicals they used!) Regulations in the USA have improved, so I assume sealed-in-plastic cups are clean now.

But items made overseas? In countries like China, which have seemingly-endless scandals about lead paint and other pollutants in products?

I wouldn't count on it.

So I'd recommend grabbing a noisemaker that you don't have to put your lips on, next New Year's Eve. Or buying one of your own, beforehand, and cleaning it yourself.

As to whose lips you put yours upon at midnight...well, that's up to you!

Happy New Year.