2016-05-29

Building an Alien Culture

Update
Peacekeeper 3: Pathogen currently stands at 9,411 words – not much of a change since a week ago. I’ve been concentrating on building my knowledge base of the Omel. By the time I’m done, I will know quite a bit about this alien race including a good number of the cultural oddities that set them apart from other species. I’ve also been doing some detailed research so I can get the facts straight in the novel. Writing science fiction often involves having to research existing technology and, unless you work in that field, it can take quite a bit of time.

One does not have to go very far to find odd cultural behaviors. Earth has plenty of them. What is common and considered polite behavior in America can be considered incredibly rude in other countries. Experienced travelers will do their research prior to making a trip to an unfamiliar country. Cultural differences can easily ruin what could be a great trip. For instance, tipping in the United States is expected. In Japan, tipping of any sort can be considered as an insult. People forget that what is believed to be okay to them might be very rude to someone from another culture. If we have such diverse behaviors among humans, imagine how hard it would be to integrate into a society of multiple alien cultures.

On Wednesday, I will be traveling to Denver and from there driving to Laramie Wyoming to attend Launch Pad 2016. This will be my 5th trip and I’m looking forward to meeting another fine group of authors. Each time I go, I make new friends and contacts. Knowing a diverse circle of writers is a benefit that all writers should have. Here’s why in my particular case:

Building an Alien World
During my quest to create a detailed description of the Omel, I will need to build their homeworld. This means selecting a properly sized planet orbiting a proper star (or stars) at the correct distance and calculating the planet’s rotation around that star based on the choices I made. It also means having to determine how long the planet’s day is as well as a general description of its geology. Each choice determines the type of world that is being created. Make the star too small and the planet must be so close that by the time life becomes intelligent the planet is tidally locked with one face always staring at the star.

Luckily, several of my Launch Pad acquaintances are astronomers. One of them has provided me with a great tool to help develop the Omel star system. Once I have all the parameters down, I’ll have her run a sanity check on what I’ve come up with. This makes for a very believable starting point for creating an alien race. I’m also reading up on the various cultural differences found here on Earth. I’ve found an interesting website to help me out - http://www.yukonhostels.com/customs.htm Check it out if you’re interested.

My wife is making good progress in her editing of Origins. I’ve entered the changes she’s suggested so far (all of them very good) and I should be able to enter some more before I leave for Laramie. The book is coming together quite well and I hope to publish soon. Before publication, while I finish up the formatting and putting the final touches on the cover, the book will be read one more time by a reader in Germany. This will ensure I publish a book with as few grammatical errors as possible.

As a self-published author, having this team of people behind me (my cover artist, my wife, other writer friends, and readers who like to help out) allows me to do what the big publishing houses do to one of their books. I lack the marketing department but in today’s world, most authors published through one of the big houses will never see a dime spent on marketing their book. Although I’m not against big publishing, I don’t see any advantage to approaching them to publish any of my own books.


I have more research to do so it’s time to close this blog and get to work.

2016-05-22

Works in progress

I don't have any particular topic to discuss today. It's been a very busy week and honestly, I haven't thought about writing this post until I woke up this morning. But, that does not mean I have nothing to write about!

Origins
My wife is making good progress on her grammatical pass through Dragonverse Origins. She is averaging about one chapter each day and is a bit over half-way done. Proofing is not easy as she has to remain focused which is difficult for her to do since she is not a fan of science fiction or fantasy. I have not yet entered any of her changes into the manuscript because I've been working on Pathogen, which is the next Peacekeeper book. I plan on taking everything she's finished so far with me when I go to Launch Pad in less than 2 weeks and make the changes while I'm gone.

I've also had my cover artist working on a cover for Origins. She produced a very good first draft and this morning I received another version after she made a few suggested changes. Doing the artwork on a computer allows her to easily move objects around, delete things, and edit individual components of the final artwork. If this type of artwork had to be done completely by hand doing all the editing would be a pain in the neck. The final artwork is shown below. I will be adding the title and my name to the artwork when the book is finally published.


Pathogen
Peacekeeper 3 (aka Pathogen) currently stands at 9,474 words. I'm trying something a bit different with this book in that I'm writing it without much of a gameplan in mind. I do have an overall theme and several scenes I want to incorporate in my head but for the most part I'm making up the story as I write. I've done this before but not to the extent I'm doing it on this book. So far, it's turning out pretty good and I'm making progress. I will have plenty of time to write next week because I will be on vacation and I will be in Laramie starting on June 1st.

Safeguarding your data
I recently talked about the importance of keeping your data backed up. Losing a hard drive along with the 8,000 photos, 5 partial manuscripts, and 10 years worth of financial data can drive anyone over the edge if the data is not backed up. But in today's modern society there's another device that people use every day that also houses huge amounts of very important information - your cell phone.

Cell phones today are power-packed pocket computers with enormous amounts of storage capacity. Yesterday, my wife and I both upgraded our phones the new HTC 10 (I had an HTC One M7 that I bought the day they came out and she had a Samsung Galaxy 5). The new phone is a blazingly fast, low bloatware, android device. If I were to max this baby out (doubtful) I could have 20 Gig of data stored in the onboard memory and another TERABYTE of data in the removable memory card. If I were to lose it, I would be lost.

Moving the information from the old to the new phones went relatively smoothly. The only glitch was my wife's old calendar events. She had discovered the Samsung calendar and her entire life was planned on it. Unfortunately, there appeared to be no way to back up all that data and move it to Google calendar. Through the power of the internet, I found a free app that allowed me to move her calendar to Google. Now, she can see her life on her phone as well as on any computer we have in the house. Plus, it is automatically backed up.

This movement of data highlighted the fact that many people have huge amounts of data on these pocket computers that might not be backed up. If you have an android device, all of your installed applications will automatically be reloaded when you buy a new phone. The data associated with those applications may or may not have been backed up by the application itself. If not, then it might be gone - especially if you lose your phone.

Backing up this data is simple. One only has to enable the auto-backup features built into the phone. You can send the data to Google, to your carrier's cloud, or (if you are an Amazon Prime member) to Amazon's cloud. If you have more than will fit - either find another place to store it or pay the money for more storage. You can also just plug your phone into your computer and make a copy of the data but who remembers to do that? Having stuff backed up automatically is the best insurance against you losing everything stored on a phone.

2016-05-15

Writer - Jack of All Trades

Update
My wife is now about 1/3 of the way through proofing Dragonverse Origins. I am up to almost 5,500 words on PeaceKeeper 3. I'm debating if I should name it PK3 or Peacekeeper - Pathogen. Picking a title is not as easy as one would think!

Congratulations to all the recent Nebula winners from last night. I admit, I have no clue who won and it wouldn't matter much anyway because I simply can't remember names very well. Based on what I read on Twitter this morning, I think at least one of them will be coming to Launch Pad this year.

Writer -- Jack of All Trades
Being a writer, whether it be romance, non-fiction, horror, or science fiction, means you are equipped with a number of talents. All writers share the basics: The ability to tell a story in a way that others find compelling; A decent grasp of the English language; The perseverance to finish writing a novel once you start; The desire to put the story that's in your head into a form that others can enjoy. These are pretty basic traits. But being a writer is far more than just putting words down on paper!

I write science fiction and so I will focus my discussion about that particular field. Science fiction readers are a very educated bunch and if you write science fiction you had better get your facts straight. It takes more than watching Star Trek or a wild imagination to write good science fiction. You have to become a veritable jack of all trades if you want to do it right.

I am 5,000 words into PK3 and I'm spending half my writing time doing research. Research - you ask? It's all made up! It's in your head! Why do you need to do any research? I'm glad you asked.

The book begins with an Omel (an alien race) deep inside a cavern doing research. I've been inside a cavern but that was many years ago. This particular one is located in Indiana and I've never been there. I found a map of the cavern system online and used that as a start. I've also sent an email to the address I found online asking them for some details. I've not yet received a response but if and when I do I will need to go back and alter my educated guesses.

That was the easy part. I mentioned an Omel. One of the main thrusts of this particular book is to delve into more detail about what it might be like to live in an alien society. For this, I need to create the Omel -- I need to play God. I start with building their homeworld. For this, I need to know a little bit about cosmology. The internet helps, but I've also reached out to an astronomer friend of mine to make sure I have it right.

Now that the planet has been built and I know as much about it as possible, I can begin to create the Omel. Instead of just describing how they look, I need to delve deeper into their culture. What is their history? What sort of religious beliefs do they have? What do they like to eat? Do they have any strange cultural beliefs? Taboos? The list goes on.

So how do you create an entire alien culture when the only culture you know about is the one you grew up in? Earth is a very diverse planet and it is filled with hundreds of diverse cultures. Finding out about them takes a huge amount of research. People often forget that what we believe in and what is common in our culture can be viewed as very strange by someone else on this planet. The purpose of the research is not to turn an odd Earth custom into an alien one, but to expand your mind so you can think of how another people living on another planet might behave.

Another thing that must be kept in mind when writing science fiction is the habit we humans have of lumping things together. Just as all humans are not alike, aliens should be portrayed as having different cultures of their own. That can quickly complicate your writing, but it makes it richer and more realistic.

I've also had to learn a little about medical procedures and how our bodies function. Remember, one of the possible titles for this new book is Peacekeeper - Pathogen. I have consulted with a microbiologist as well as a friend in the medical profession to clear up a few questions I've had. The internet is a big help but there are times when speaking directly to a person gives better results.

Finally, there's the science. I've devoted a few past posts on keeping the science real. This is science fiction but I can't violate the laws of nature without good reason. I have a smattering of knowledge in electonics, computer science, astronomy, physics (both nuclear and classical), cosmology, and a few others. I'm familiar with Einstien's equations concerning relativity. All of this knowledge is used to keep the science in my books as real as possible.

To be a good writer, you must be a jack of all trades. This requires dedication and a huge amount of research as well as an active imagination combined with the ability to put it all together into a story that others can enjoy. It's a lot of work at times and the rewards might not always show up in the form of a paycheck, but it's a wonderful profession to be in.

2016-05-08

Rambling

Update
My wife is making fair progress on her proofing pass of Dragonverse Origins. Although she does not have a lot of spare time, she's been doing an average of one chapter every day. In the meantime, I've started Peacekeeper 3. So far, the growing novel has 2,600 words. Not a huge number, but at least I've started it.

Last weekend, myself and 3 other local authors rented a spot at the Oddmall event in Akron - about an hour's drive from us. There were a lot of people, we handed out a huge number of business cards, and we even sold a few books. I sold a total of 7 during the 2-day event. A few days later, I noticed a small jump in sales. It is possible that some of the people we met and gave cards to followed through and purchased a book online. Was the event worthwhile? Depends. It was fun, I met some interesting people and put my name out there. I even got some writing done. But from a business point of view, it was not cost effective. Figuring in the cost of the books to myself, food at the event, my share of the space, and the money earned from books sold (even figuring in the spike in ebook sales), it cost me more than I made. This was an experiment and I doubt I will repeat it.

Rambling
I sat down to write this post with nothing in particular in mind. That's really not a good thing. The truth is, I've been quite busy and haven't had time to actually think about what I might be writing about. So, just now, a moment after I typed the first sentence in this section, I've found my topic. I'm leaving the heading though because that would be cheating.

I try to write science fiction that contains as much factual information as possible. The science is stretched but it is believable because it is based on what we know today. Take metallic hydrogen for example. As far as I know, we've never been able to produce it in our labs. Even the characteristics of such a bizarre material are speculation. But it's speculation based on science. Metallic hydrogen is believed to be a room temperature superconductor - the Holy Grail of superconductor research. I use it in my stories because even though it's impossible to make today, it might be possible to make in the future.

Peacekeeper 3 begins with an extraction of an Omel biomaster from deep inside the Bluespring caverns. I've never been there. To give the book some reality, I've fired off an email to the cavern's information center and I hope to have a reply back that's detailed enough for me to make sure that what I write is accurate. The Omel are from a planet that orbits a very small red dwarf star. I will be enlisting the help of fellow Launch Pad alumni to come up with a detailed description of the Omel homeworld. Accuracy here will require some knowledge of astrophysics.

To write believable futuristic novels, a writer must take what is known today and expand upon it to build the future. Sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we nail it. Take Star Trek as an example. They had portable computers, warp drive, transporters, and communicators. Today we have computers that fit into your pocket. They started out as a flip-phone which, in essence, functions like the communicator on Star Trek. These devices are much smaller and far more powerful than the original Star Trek devices predicted but Gene Roddenberry nailed that technology.

Transporters are actually being worked on today but I feel such technology has too many issues and will never be used as portrayed in Star Trek. Warp drive, however, is a different story. We are constantly learning more about extra dimensions and how spacetime can be altered. There are a few scientists who are actively working on the math behind a functional warp drive. The stardrive in my novels has been heavily influenced by Star Trek's warp drive only because I believe it is a viable method of allowing us to exceed the velocity of light. I am confident that the human race will one day be traveling the stars - provided we don't kill ourselves off before then.

To be a science fiction writer you need to keep current with advancing technology. This is not easy because there are few sources of information available that combine it all together. Many years ago, there was a magazine named High Technology. I read every single issue because it talked about the advances being made across all areas of human knowledge. It was a wonderful source of information. Then, the editors decided to try to focus on the business aspects of the science instead of the science itself. After the second issue, I canceled my subscription. The magazine went out of business shortly thereafter. Now, I get my information from several internet sources. If High Technology were available in print today as it originally came out, I would sign up in a heartbeat.

Time to post this and get back to working on Peacekeeper 3.

2016-05-01

Peacekeeper 3

Update
I spent last week satisfying my scifi itch by watching several movies and recorded television shows. I also spent some time reading. Yesterday was spent in Akron at the John S. Knight center taking part in an event called the Oddmall. It's like a combination of a small scifi convention and ComiCon. Plenty of vendors and quite a number of people dressing up like the Ghost Busters, Star Wars, Star Fox, and a few I didn't recognize. Myself and 3 other authors set up shop in the large hall outside the main dealer room. We did okay but none of us made enough to recoup the cost of the space. We are returning today and hope to sell more.

Yesterday, towards the end of the day, when the crowd was winding down, I fired up the computer and started work on Peacekeeper 3. I haven't gotten very far, but at least the book is started. I'll see about writing more today.

Living the Digital Life
I would like to continue the discussion I started last week on data security. Last week, I talked about data security from the perspective of losing your pictures, manuscripts, and other files if one of your hard drives crashes. This week, I want to talk about the digital footprint we all have and what it means.

Many years ago, before the internet changed everything, a person one of my roommates brought into the apartment took my checkbook and used the checks to buy a bunch of stuff. I found out about it only because I have always kept meticulous records and I noticed that several checks were missing. I immediately reported it to the bank. When the checks cleared (and they did) I was called to the bank to verify that the checks were not signed by me. It was clearly a case of forgery. It was an inconvenience but the bank reversed all the charges and life went on.

Today, if someone manages to get the username and password to your bank account, steal your credit card number, or obtain only a frighteningly small number of key facts about you, they can become you and ruin your life, sending you into a financial hole that can take years to climb out of. Being able to see something you like, pick up your phone, order it, and have it arrive at your house in two days is convenient but that convenience comes with a significant amount of risk. To protect ourselves, we have to become vigilant in keeping certain facts about us secret. For many, this means becoming paranoid.

Phishing scams are becoming more sophisticated; so much so that I no longer click on any links in an email no matter who they’re from. Websites are becoming infected with malware that make it appear as if your PC has become infected. They offer up a convenient link to solve the problem. If you click on it, you just invited a criminal to look around inside your computer.

I write science fiction and it’s part of my job as a SciFi writer to predict what the future might be like based on current technology and our understanding of science. If you’ve ever watched the movie Minority Report, you might recall the targeted ads that peppered people as they walked through a mall. This sort of technology exists today and you can see it if you pay attention to the ads that pop up when you move around the internet. You’re being tracked in far greater detail than you might realize. Enormously powerful computers are watching where you go, what you search for, how long you remain on a certain site, and what sort of ads you click on. Every detail of almost every transaction you initiate on the web is recorded, tracked, and sold to others.

Every purchase you make with a credit card and every use of your rewards card leaves a digital record. Camera’s mounted on police cars and in automated toll booths scan every license plate that passes by and dumps the data into a nation-wide database. Face recognition is moving into airports and banks and it won't be long before it's being used to scan the faces of people walking down the street. Scared yet?

Right now, all of this data is stored in separate databases. But more and more of this information is being combined to create a frightening future. Given enough computer power and access to the right sources of data, virtually everything about you can become known. Even data that’s been supposedly anonymized can be reattached with high accuracy to the person to which it belongs – a process called reidentification. Medical data is often stripped of personal information and shipped to research firms doing legitimate analysis of the data. It has been shown that given enough information, such data can be re-associated to the person it belongs to. What does all this mean?

Computers are growing in power every day. The internet has invaded all aspects of our lives whether we know it or not. Someday, in the not too distant future, a computer somewhere will know everything there is to know about you – and there’s nothing you can do about it. Am I worried? As long as my data remains grouped with the other billions of people throughout the world – no. In fact, if that same computer can be programmed to search for patterns and those patterns can stop a terrorist attack or prevent a kidnapping or a murder, then I’m all for it. I’m a single individual among billions. I stand a better chance of winning the lottery than being singled out and targeted as long as I remain part of the noise of data. How detailed can this information get? Let’s take my upcoming trip to Laramie as an example.

I bought my plane ticket over the internet using a credit card several months ago. About a month ago, I rented the van. I’ve done this in the past using Expedia, this time, I went directly to the individual companies. I’ve emailed and I now follow on Twitter the people I will be meeting in less than a month and I stay in touch with those I’ve met during other trips in the past. I will use my credit card and the internet to reserve and pay for my parking spot at the airport. My cell phone is in my pocket at all times, silently establishing my exact position every few seconds. During the trip, I will pay for my meals using my credit card. My license plate might be scanned as I drive to the airport. The van I rent will pass through several automated tollgates and its license plate will be scanned. I will receive a bill for the toll a few weeks after I return meaning the van’s license plate can be traced back to me. While waiting for the plane, I might do a few searches on the internet, update my Facebook page, and send out a few tweets. I might even take a few photos which will be geo-tagged and uploaded.

Given all the above, if all the individual databases could be connected, a computer can extract a huge amount of information about where I’ve been, who I’ve been in touch with, and what I did during the entire trip. Given unlimited access to my digital footprint, a computer could track my life as if it was walking along side me recording everything I did every second of every day. With the internet and the growing power of computers, this day is not too far off. But, just because the data is there does not mean I’m being watched. I’m part of the noise – a few kilobits a second in the sea of multi-terabytes per second. It’s like trying to watch a single grain of sand on a beach as the waves roll in.

But, if I suddenly did something illegal, a future law enforcement agency could zero in on my personal data flow and in a matter of moments locate me for questioning. When this day arrives, computers should be the keymasters of their own data keeping it locked away and encrypted by passwords that only the machines know. Specific details of any single person’s existence should be kept behind electronic walls of silence and only the barest minimum of summary data should be allowed to pass into the hands of non-machine intelligence.


This is a frightening future for many people. But when you think about it, if we apply our exponentially growing technology appropriately, we can create a world where criminals will never get away with anything. Our society can be improved with this technology. The question though is – are we intelligent enough to make that future a reality? Personally, I have my doubts. Tyrants, dictators, greedy people, and governments in general will all have a say in how that technology is put to use. As a writer of science fiction, I can envision both the good and the bad futures. As a human, I hope for the good.