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When Home Is Precarious

Most of us have a pretty good picture of what the homeless look like: the disheveled person with the cardboard sign at the streetcorner, panhandling for spare change, the people huddled in tents or cardboard boxes in encampments in parks or utility easements, the people trying to find a shelter to take them in for the night. Most of them have lives that are in disarray as the result of mental health or addiction issues, often both mutually co-morbid.

But increasingly there is an even larger population of people who don't look homeless because they are able to keep things together just enough to present the appearance of a well-kept person. But they're living in their car, or in a cheap motel, or doubled up with friends or relatives in a precarious situation. And around them is an even larger periphery of people who do have housing, but are in continual danger of slipping into homelessness because of a combination of legal and economic factors that make it easy for landlords to force tenants out and difficult for people to find new places willing to accept them as tenants.

Part of the problem is the ever-shrinking buying power of wages in relation to rents. Although minimum wage jobs were originally conceived as starter jobs, the sort that would be done by young people still living under their parents' roof, who would move to more responsible and better-paid work as they gained independence, an ever-increasing share of the service economy is adults working throughout their lives at minimum or near-minimum wage jobs. As a result, they are trapped in situations in which it is nearly impossible to pay for all the necessities of life, let alone any luxuries. In many urban areas, just renting a modest two-bedroom house or even an apartment would require a minimum-wage worker to work so many hours that there aren't enough left over for commuting, self-care and sleep. In some areas, it literally would require more hours than exist in a week -- you could only manage if you had access to a time machine and could double over yourself to work two jobs during the same hour.

But another part of the problem is the growing unwillingness of many areas to allow affordable housing to be built. Zoning requirements often disallow multi-family dwellings, making it impossible to build apartment buildings near the places where people work. Worse, rental of single-family dwellings, which had grown after the 2008 housing crash made lots of foreclosed homes available as rental units, is becoming more precarious as housing values recover. Many landlords are deciding to sell their rental units to people who will refurbish them to sell -- and to do that, the tenants have to be pushed out, often on only 30 days notice, the bare minimum required by law in most jurisdictions. And many of those non-renewed tenants find it extremely hard to find new rentals as the rental market becomes increasingly competitive. Often they move to stopgap housing -- weekly-rate motels, doubling up with friends and family, etc -- that is just one step above homelessness.

At the root, the problem is why wages are so low while rents are so high. Which really comes down to a population of comfortably middle-class voters and consumers who want services, but don't want to have to pay for them at a rate that would give the worker a living wage (far too easy to do when one's own payment is aggregated with a lot of other payments to their employer, as opposed to paying the person directly), and are so protective of their own home values that they will reject anything that might even possibly diminish it, including affordable housing for the people who provide the services that make their lives comfortable.

And the saddest thing is, many of them don't even realize that their individual choices have these consequences, because there are enough middlemen between the services they receive and the paychecks the workers receive that it effectively becomes invisible. These are not Scrooges who would deliberately pay someone starvation wages, but people who simply don't see the lives of the people who provide the various services they take for granted.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Money" by Pink Floyd
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

City Cat, Country Cat

There is strong evidence that the urban trash panda (Procyon lotor) is more clever and adaptable than his country cousin, the common raccoon. The urban bandits have been caught finding ways to open trash bins that were supposedly impossible to open without opposable thumbs, among other feats of animal intelligence.

Now we have evidence that fisher cats in Sri Lanka are adapting to the urban environment in surprising ways. However, as the author notes, we need to be very careful about just what we are discussing when we talk about animal intelligence and its increase as a result of the selective pressure the urban environment puts on a population. We aren't even 100% sure what we're talking about when we discuss human intelligence, so should we be particularly surprised when it proves difficult to be sure just what is changing behind the behavioral adaptability of urban wildlife.
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  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "She Blinded Me With Science" by Thomas Dolby
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The Early Bird -- Willpower or Genetics?

Recently there's been a huge push on certain business forums to get up at very early hours as a way of promoting success. Some say 5AM, and some even push it to 4AM. Get started on your day early and you will be able to get things done better.

Or maybe you'll end up sick, as accumulating sleep deprivation wears down your immune system. Although many people did experience productivity gains, many reported feeling miserable the entire time they tried rising at extreme early hours. Even if they didn't actually get sick, they found they couldn't wait to the weekend to sleep until they were done sleeping, without the jangle of the alarm ripping them out of their slumbers.

There is mounting evidence that getting up early is not just a matter of willpower, or a mark of character, and that people who can sustainably get up at extremely early hours have fundamental differences in how their bodies handle sleep-wake rhythms. Their bodies naturally start producing melatonin around 8PM, so they become sleepy and ready for bed in good time to get a full night's sleep before 4AM. They don't have to constantly fight their own bodies into an arbitrary schedule, because it comes naturally to them.

This strongly suggests that setting an arbitrary hour at which everyone should get up is setting some people up for failure, simply because their bodies do not naturally become wakeful at that hour. Although extreme measures can be used to shift a person's sleep-wake cycle, it often does not stick long-term, and even a day or two off the schedule can cause a reversion to one's natural sleep rhythms.

Unfortunately, most schools and workplaces remain inflexible about such matters, which can make things difficult for both extreme larks (who may have trouble staying awake for evening events such as club meetings) and extreme owls (who struggle to get and stay awake in time to get to class or work in the morning). So it's quite possible that the increased health problems of people with chronotype mismatches is not a matter of their sleep habits being bad, but the constant struggle to bend far enough to accommodate others' schedules uses up energy they need for other things.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Time" by Pink Floyd
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The Impulse Buy Threshold

Recently there's been a lot of talk about "inverted yield ratios." This is a market signal that big businesses and financial institutions look for when worried that a recession is coming. Basically, short-term bonds have better interest rates than long-term bonds, which means that investors don't have confidence in the economy. There are others, including the "velocity of money," but I'm coming to the conclusion that the most useful one for the average small businessperson engaged in retail trade is what I call the "impulse buy threshold."

That is, at what price point do customers typically have to start thinking about whether they really want to buy something that's caught their eye. Back in 2013 and 2014, people didn't think twice about buying a $20 t-shirt. We'd sell whole boxes of them at a larger convention. But somewhere along the line, things changed. I'd originally chalked our stagnating sales up to the saturation of the t-shirt market, with a lot of companies using cheap blanks and otherwise cutting corners on quality to compete on price. But looking back, I'm thinking that somewhere along the line, enough people's threshold for an impulse buy went below twenty bucks that sales started shrinking.

Instead, I'm now seeing five-buck emoji masks becoming the big impulse buy. At some conventions, it seemed like almost half our total sales were emoji masks, especially if we had a whole table full of designs. I'm starting to think about ways to display them vertically, since sales are better the more variety one can offer. However, the fact that people are worrying more about their finances suggests that too much expansion is not a good thing right now.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: nervous nervous
  • Current Music: "Money" by Pink Floyd
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And That Was Michigan Comic Con

As a first-year convention, Michigan Comic Con did better for me than the established Tampa Bay Comic Con, which was down from previous years' performance. After Tampa rebounded this year, I headed up to Detroit for this year's Michigan Comic Con hoping to match or exceed the mark set last year.

Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned. The promoters had expanded the exhibit hall, renting Hall B of the COBO Center as well as Hall C. As a result, the crowd was spread across almost twice as many vendors, and there was some talk that attendance had actually shrunk instead of growing.

As a result, sales were disappointing for us, since the previous year set a bar that couldn't be met. On the other hand, it wasn't completely dead like Wisconsin Comic Con, where I spent significant parts of the show just sitting and trying not to fall asleep. Although I won't be sure until I've actually done all the bookwork, I'm thinking that we've reached a break-even point, or at least close enough to it that we'll be able to consider going back if a stronger convention isn't up against it (at the moment, the promoters haven't updated their website to information about next year, so I don't know if they're keeping the same dates or moving to a different weekend like their Tampa and Atlanta shows are).
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: sad sad
  • Current Music: "Money" by Pink Floyd
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Bittercon: Shoot for the Moon: lunar depictions in SFF



I'll admit that I picked this particular panel discussion at the Dublin Worldcon because its moderator is Ian Sales, who was the editor of the anthology Rocket Science, in which he published my short story "Tell Me a Story." And yes, my story has one scene which takes place in a lunar settlement -- and the entire story is about how successive generations view a children's book called The Astronaut and the Man in the Moon.

Early stories about voyages to the Moon were more on the order of fantasy than science fiction, and often had an allegorical or satirical element in them. That is, they were more to hold a mirror to their contemporary society than to extrapolate conditions on the actual Moon, about which almost nothing was known at the time.

More interesting (in my mind, at least) is looking at various pre-Apollo hard-sf depictions of voyages to the Moon or life in settlements on the moon and seeing what they got right and what they got wrong. Jules Verne's novel of a voyage to the Moon is interesting in how it parallels the actual Apollo missions -- his Columbiad (one letter off from the actual Apollo XI Command Module's call sign, Columbia) launches from Florida (albeit from Tampa, on the Gulf Coast at roughly the same latitude as Cape Canaveral) and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. However, he used a giant gun rather than a multi-stage rocket, and while his calculations were surprisingly close, they ignored the problems of keeping the g-forces survivable for living passengers.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote a number of stories and novels that included voyages to the Moon or life on the Moon. "The Man Who Sold the Moon" is the story of Delos D. Harriman, the man who financed the first lunar landing in the original Future History. The actual first lunar landing in the Primary World turned out to be a government project, part of our Cold War with the Soviet Union, but as the second age of space is opening, both Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) have been compared to Harriman as the entrepreneur who will make space travel commercially successful and humanity truly a spacefaring species.

Best known of Heinlein's lunar fiction is The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which arguably belongs to a second future history of stories that are sometimes confused with the original Future History. It's the story of the birth of the Luna Free State which was mentioned in The Rolling Stones, and was written right about the time the Mercury and Gemini missions were providing information on how humans handled spaceflight, and some of the early Surveyor robotic probes were returning data from soft landings on the lunar surface. It's interesting that Heinlein did foresee the effects of lowered gravity on human physiology, although some critics have suggested that he may have overstated the case for plot purposes. We do know from the long duration missions on both Mir and the ISS that weightlessness weakens the body, and the effects are to some degree permanent, although astronauts and cosmonauts have gotten pretty much back to normal within a few months after returning to Earth. What we do not know is how reduced gravity affects biological systems -- which is why the cancellation of a centrifuge module for the ISS, which would have permitted variable gravity experiments with small mammals such as mice, is such a shame.
  • Current Location: Detroit, Michigan
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "Rocket Man" by Elton John
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Bittercon: The Canon Conundrum

Here's another interesting panel discussion at the Dublin Worldcon: how important is it that a series maintain a consistent canon? Some fictional 'verses seem to regularly contradict themselves without fans batting an eyelash. There's no way to fit all the various Doctor Who episodes together to create a self-consistent Secondary World, or to get the various Star Trek novels to fit with the various TV series and movies -- or even each other.

However, other series have very definite canons, and departing from them can cause great distress. Many fans of A Song of Ice and Fire became upset when it was announced that the televised A Game of Thrones series would be going in a different direction from the novels (at least partly because George RR Martin was being so terribly slow getting them written). And Disney's announcement that they would be abrogating the vast canon of the Expanded Universe and creating a new post-ROTJ future for the Star Wars universe nearly caused a fan revolt.
  • Current Location: Detroit, Michigan
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles
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Bittercon: Invisible work: mothers and caregivers in SFF

Here's another interesting panel discussion on the Dublin Worldcon schedule. Even here in the Primary World, family caregiving is socially invisible, and often treated as non-work, as I can attest. It's painful to see a family member who gave the best years of his life to caring for his elderly mother now being treated like a layabout who never worked a day in his life, all because there was no formal arrangement of paychecks, etc. that a potential employer can see as "work experience."

So is it really surprising that caregiving tends to be an invisible part of the worldbuilding in most sf and fantasy settings? For one thing, it's pretty much peripheral to the typical storyline of fantasy or sf, so it would get passed right over as adding nothing to the story. Rather like the question of why so many protagonists in sf and fantasy don't seem to have any family, or at most have vaguely mentioned families to whom they have only the flimsiest of ties -- because the typical story has the character going off and doing something, and strong family ties would interfere with that.

However, there are some stories in which caregiving roles were important enough to receive attention, and which go beyond just the stereotypical "mother fixing and serving meal" scene we often see in YA fiction. For instance, in Robert A. Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, when Thorby is first adopted by the Free Traders of the Sisu, his adoptive mother is full-time caregiver for her elderly mother-in-law, who runs the household side of the Sisu as her son the Captain runs the ship. And this relationship isn't just something tossed off as local color, the weird customs of the Free Traders -- during the time Thorby spends aboard the Sisu, we see several examples of what it means, not to mention the very real grief when it ends.

And in Kate Elliott's Shadow Gate, Kirya's dying Jaran tribe is headed by an elderly grandmother who's suffered a stroke, and who is completely paralyzed and unresponsive. Several of the younger women are portrayed taking various caregiver roles as they try to do their best for her within the limits of what a nomadic people can do.

What other examples are there of caregivers and caregiving being portrayed in fantasy and sf?
  • Current Location: Detroit, Michigan
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "When I'm Sixty-four" by the Beatles
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Bittercon: With Fans Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

The stories are often passed in whispers: the fan whose obsession with the writer's fictional world has gone beyond all reasonable bounds, to the point of confusing fact and fancy. The fan turned stalker, who does something colossally stupid and dangerous at a convention and leaves an author afraid to attend conventions, lest this unbalanced person endanger innocent fans in pursuit of the author of their obsession.

And while some of them may be born of speculation when an author suddenly stops writing a series or stops attending conventions for unspecified reasons, not all are unfounded. For a number of years Mercedes Lackey was unable to attend conventions because of the actions of one fan who got a little too involved in her urban fantasy series. And of course there are all the obnoxious fans who've rudely demanded that George R. R. Martin get moving on the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, in terms that edge dangerously close to threats that would be legally actionable.

We almost never hear of such obsessive fans making nuisances of themselves with the authors of mysteries, or romances, or even technothrillers, which are kissing cousins to hard sf with rivets. Is there something about fantasy and sf and its fandoms that attract these sorts of people? Or does the peculiar intimacy of sf/fantasy fandom, in which published authors regularly hang out in con suites and schmooze with their fans as equals, lead a certain kind of person to assume an entitlement entitlement to their favorite author's efforts?
  • Current Location: Detroit, Michigan
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