Oct 312014
 
SpaceShipTwo Tail Section. Photo: Laura Davis
A tail piece from SpaceShipTwo debris field. Photo: Laura Davis

A tail piece from SpaceShipTwo debris field. Photo: Laura Davis

by Laura Davis, managing editor

It’s been a bad week for things that fly. I was just finishing an update, earlier today, on the explosion of Orbital Science’s Antares 130 rocket earlier this week, when I got the even-worse news that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo had crashed during a test flight, and one of the pilots had died. The second pilot was able to eject, and parachuted to the ground. He or she was airlifted to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, California. At this time, there’s no official word on that pilot’s condition, just that he or she was “seriously injured.” Both pilots were employees of Virgin Galactic partner, Scaled Composites, which has played a vital role in developing and testing SpaceShipTwo.

The crew was testing the rocket engine of SpaceShipTwo for the first time in nine months. Scaled Composites president Kevin Mickey explained that a new type of fuel had been in testing on the ground since January, and this was the first flight using the new plastic-based mix, which they’d hoped would boost the hybrid rocket engine’s performance. The final pre-flight qualification ground test took place earlier this month and, said Mickey, “we expected no anomalies with the motor today.”

SpaceShipTwo was slung underneath WhiteKnightTwo for launch, and released when the planes reached an altitude of about 50,000 feet. Approximately two minutes later, SpaceShipTwo fired its rocket engine. Eyewitness accounts as to what happened next vary wildly. Stuart Witt, the CEO and general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port said at today’s press conference, “There’s usually a certain cadence, and you see things occurring, and the thing makes a contrail and the like. Because of the very light cirrus clouds, I was eyes on, but I didn’t see any anomaly. In fact it was when I wasn’t hearing anything that I became concerned. And I looked over at my colleague, and then there was a radio call, something about a chute.”

Photographer Ken Brown, who was covering the test flight, reported that he saw an explosion high in the air and later came upon SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a small area of the desert.

While it’s clearly too early to tell exactly what went wrong, WhiteKnightTwo and its pilots made a safe landing, and SpaceShipTwo crashed, leaving a 5-mile-long debris field near Cantil, California: a part of the Mojave Desert so desolate that even joshua trees won’t grow there.

After leaving the press conference held at the Mojave Air and Space Port, I headed up to Cantil with a heavy heart. As I turned off to the road nearest the crash site, traffic was stopped for road construction (unrelated to the crash), and I found myself in the middle of a convoy of Kern County Search and Rescue (S.A.R.) vehicles, headed to the scene. When the flagman waved us on, it felt like a funeral procession. I stopped at the S.A.R. staging area, which was also being used as a base for the helicopter which was searching the debris field, and for Kern County Fire and Sheriff’s Department personnel on scene. This staging area was near the end of the debris field where the pilot who died was found. The surviving pilot was found a couple of miles away, near where I photographed a piece of the plane’s tail. I watched as the S.A.R. team deployed its fleet of quad-runners and set off for their assignments. They’d been instructed not to talk to the press, but as a former S.A.R. team member, I suspect their primary task was to help secure the site, and possibly to help locate and mark debris for collection.

Farther down the road, I found another access point to the boundary of the debris field, manned by a pair of Federal agents. They told me that the site would be manned 24/7 until the debris field was mapped and all the needed pieces collected. When I left, it was still daylight, winds gusting to about 50 MPH, and the temperature had already dropped to 55F, with a storm was quickly approaching. It’s going to be a long night for everyone out there.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement, “Our primary thoughts at this moment are with the crew and family, and we’re doing everything we can for them now. I’d like to recognize the work of the first responders who we work with in the Antelope Valley for their efforts on behalf of the team. We’re also thinking of the team members that we have at the companies that have been working on this program.

“Space is hard and today was a tough day. We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today. We’re going to get through it. The future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the team, that has been working so hard on this endeavour, to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we’ll do.”

I think Witt summed the feeling up best at today’s press conference: “We are human, and it hurts. Our hearts, thoughts, prayers are absolutely with the families and the victims.”

VIrgin Galactic representatives have issued a statement that Richard Branson is on his way to Mojave to be with his team, and that there will be another press conference tomorrow. We’ll keep you up to date as more information becomes available.

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Jul 082014
 

by Karina “Cinerina” Montgomery

In Part 2 of a four part series, we talk about ways to work with the SDCC environment and rules, and be prepared!

Neytiri costumes have no pockets!

Neytiri costumes have no pockets!

Pro tip: Don’t forget some kind of Bag of Holding!

It’s the eternal conundrum: How can you bring what you need, but not be over-burdened? Hard core cosplayers learned ages ago that the best accessory you can have is an entourage carrying your supplies. For the rest of us, we’re usually juggling some kind of knapsack or messenger bag in addition to the SDCC bag that you’re given upon badge pickup. This giant bag is useful for things you don’t need to access much, like posters, freebies, and flat art/printed material, but not so much for those items you want to access often, like your wallet or cell phone. How many pockets can you conceal in a Nav’i costume? Sure, you’re in a convention center in a big American city, not in the middle of the Australian outback, but working out access to basic necessities comes up more than you might think.

What kind of stuff would one need to bring? If you get hungry or your batteries die, you need backups. Even if you’re staying in a hotel near the convention, you won’t reasonably have access to your car or room to drop off or pick up anything.  The closest convenience store is A-Mart, at West Harbor Drive and Market, down by Seaport Village. This is a long hike you simply can’t make if you’re standing in line for an autograph! Leaving the main convention center itself can be its own mini-expedition, especially if you exit through a door that is not near the Big Crosswalk out front.

Pro tip: The crosswalk is outside Door E and points you right down 5th Avenue.

Smart con-goers bring a bottle to fill with water, hand sanitizer, cameras, extra SD cards and batteries, extra chargers, good shoes, sunscreen (you will be outside more than you think), mints or gum, and good attitudes. Sharpies in black and a metallic color are good to have on hand for autograph moments. A safety pin or two is good to control your badge or if it gets torn off its lanyard.

Pro tip: Pack easy quick snacks (dried fruit and jerky got me through my first SDCC with a press pass) and fold-up supplemental tote bags for all your shopping. I love the big free bag but it isn’t always ideal.

Maps and planning

Check the schedule and the maps and figure out where things are. Be realistic about travel time. Even if you were unencumbered by crowds and bags of goodies, or not distracted by all the stuff all around you, it can be a good 10-20 minute brisk walk from one end of SDCC’s area of influence to another. There aren’t breaks between programming in the Indigo Ballroom, so if you get out of one of the small rooms at the A end of the convention center, you have literally 5 minutes to get to your chair a mile away. The largest rooms have breaks for room turnover, but 17 of the programming rooms do not. Know where you’re going before you start going.

The one nice thing about Hall H is that the bathrooms are inside the room – for every other meeting room, you have to exit to go. This may mean you never get back in – and you’ll be doing some huge circling to get back even if the bathroom is right next to the exit.

The SDCC app (for iPhone and Android) is a very helpful tool. Install it well in advance and as soon as the schedule is posted, update it in your phone and start looking at the offerings. Don’t forget to leave time for shopping, art show viewing, eating, autograph line ups, freebie pickup windows, and the myriad unscheduled things you can see at SDCC. Once you know what you like, you can mark just your favorites and manage your time and routes. It includes maps of the facility – but it does not help with the Dreaded One Way Hallways. I should note: it doesn’t load super fast when 250,000 people are sharing the wireless signal.

Pro tip: Rip out the facility map in the program guide and use it like it was the pre-digital age. Trust me.

'What do you mean you're at the Walking Dead booth? That's where I am!"  "WHAT? IT'S INCREDIBLY LOUD IN HERE!"

‘What do you mean you’re at the Walking Dead booth? That’s where I am!” “WHAT? IT’S INCREDIBLY LOUD IN HERE!”

The program schedule goes up about 2 weeks before the show. Go online, go into the app, and start thinking about the Can’t-Miss panels or activities. Just remember – having a badge is no guarantee of anything except getting in that main door. Seating is first come first serve, and you can’t get into everything you want simply because you can’t get there in time. If you are in room 6B and your next thing is right away in 6D, even though the facility doors are only one door away, you actually exit on one side of all these rooms and enter on the other, so you will have walk all the way around to the Entrance Hallway from the Exit Hallway you were spit out into. It takes the same amount of time to go from 7A to 2A as it does to go from 6B to 6D, thanks to the one-way hallways. Oh and the throngs of people all trying to get to their rooms, they will also slow your progress. Down in the most crowded area of the vendor floor (closest to all the movie studio booths), some aisles are designated one-way, though it is much harder to indicate or police the flow down there. Your best bet of getting past the studio area is to stick to the outside aisles.

If you’ve never been before, you also might not know about Line Crossings. Besides the one-way hallways, sometimes a room like Ballroom 20 is letting people in from the miles long line outside, and you get to wait for a few hundred people to pass while you’re frantically trying to get from 29A to 7A (that’s the whole length of the convention center). The convention center and security know what they are doing in terms of managing lines, so please let them do their job. Planning ahead is key, but you also have to be flexible. Scheduled meeting times may go astray due to any of these obstacles, so bump up your texting plan for the month and just be patient.

Official SDCC events occur in offsite locations, not just the convention center. SDCC has outgrown its little facility and now local hotels are in on the fun. Know where you’re going so you don’t miss your panel!

The Indigo Ballroom is at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront is on the Hall H/east side of the convention center. There are ballrooms with badge-entry-only panels here and it’s a pretty good hike if you’re coming all the way from the lower numbered booths near entrance A.

The Hilton San Diego Gaslamp Quarter is the other Hilton, which is across Harbor Drive and the trolley tracks in the Gaslamp Quarter proper.

Then you also have Petco Park, the Omni Hotel, the San Diego Marriott, and a host of other active sites next to and across the way from the convention center. You’ll see a lot of them as you arrive. If you stay only inside the convention center, you probably miss a full fifth of what’s on offer.

Meeting places and areas of calm

The mezzanine level has very few meeting rooms, but it does have a small café and places to sit down, and lots of great fan tables. These folks don’t get to leave their tables much to see the con, so come by and say hi! You could join up with Klingons, pirates, a variety of steampunk organizations, SCA fighters, Furries, the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers, and more. That’s just what I could remember off the top of my head. Apologies to the many fan tables I forgot! The escalator has great visibility to those in the mezzanine, and you can arrange to meet your friends there or out on the patio.

The patio is good for large group meetups, getting some fresh air (no smoking!), gawking at the Ballroom 20 line, and taking photos. Saturday afternoon in particular is chockablock with fun groups meeting so swing by and check them out!

This friendly Klingon will show you the way of honor at his fan table.

This friendly Klingon will show you the way of honor at his fan table.

Fan tables are a great place to meet a friend!

Fan tables are a great place to meet a friend!

Other quiet areas that are good for a respite or to meet your friends are Artists Alley on one far end of the vendor floor, or the really serious comic book vendor booths at the other end. Booths are numbered so you can always say “meet me at booth 2543” but it’s not always easy to find the numbers. It’s easy to say “Meet me at the WB booth” since they have that handy easy-to-see water tower every year, but that is pretty much the most crowded spot in the con.

Pro tip: DC Comics always has a huge spot staked out but not much actual furniture or crowds, unless there is a bigwig signing things. And their booth is almost always carpeted which means soft floor to stand on. Booth 1915. You’re welcome.

I talked about food options last week (there is also Seaport Village a good hike away to the east) because you definitely need to remember to keep your blood sugar up and stay hydrated. On paper it seems like just a big room with neat stuff and standing in line to get into other big rooms, but really SDCC can really take it out of you and/or damage your calm if you don’t take care of your physical needs.

How not to get kicked out or locked out

• Don’t record the studio clips! Yes, they will watch you, and when you post it on YouTube, the studio could even boycott showing clips next year.

• Don’t bring an animal – it’s horribly cruel and traumatic and it can cause problems. Service animals are trained for this, but even they can get overwhelmed or overrun in the melee.

• No, you can’t get back in the same door if you left to pee. No, your seat isn’t being saved for you, even if your friend thinks they can do that. You should have gone on Wednesday like everyone else.

• Scoot in and don’t put your stuff in a chair next to you. Every panel, whether it’s in Hall H or in the smallest 280-seater, is first come first serve but also very limited. Let everyone in who wants to get in and make room.

• Keep your badge handy. Sure, you want it out of sight so it doesn’t ruin photos of your awesome costume, but if you can pop it out or conceal it in an easily flashed way, you’ll get through the doors faster and help mitigate bottlenecks.

• Beta test your costume for maneuverability and safety. Big costumes are amazing, but on the vendor floor or sitting in a panel they can impede fun for you and the people behind you. Take it to your local mall and see if you can navigate pretty easily in a clothing shop without pulling product off the racks or costume pieces off yourself. If you can’t navigate in a Claire’s, you have no chance in hell of getting within a mile of the WB water tower.

Pro Tip: Be awesome no matter what you do!

Hall H: It’s a bear.

Seating over 6500 people, it’s the big ticket place to see all the biggest stars, announcements, and panels. It also is the longest line, in the sun.

In 2010, folks lined up for the Thursday, 10am Twilight panel starting at 2am Tuesday morning. After that panel was done, the hall was totally emptied because those fans weren’t interested in whatever came afterward. Look at the schedule and plan accordingly. You will be in line a long time, but a long chunk of line gets in at a time. Sometimes you can waltz in, and sometimes you wait for 3 hours or 5 or more.

As of press time the no-room-clearing between panels policy still stands: if you get in, stay in. To exit means to get back in line. One year I needed to get my cell phone charger cable from someone in Hall H and it was simply not possible for him to stick his arm out the door at me. Always roll with disappointments. The big rooms that break between panels are 6A, 6BCF, 6DE, Ballroom 20, and Hall H. The rest just have a quick turnover so your opportunity to fix a mistake is brief.

Ballroom 20:

4800 people crowd in here to see the second most popular panels, which are still usually huge things like Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. In 2011 the 11am Walking Dead line had already reached room capacity by 6am.

In the smaller room areas, it's still a pretty dense crush of people.  Walk briskly but don't be pushy.

In the smaller room areas, it’s still a pretty dense crush of people. Walk briskly but don’t be pushy.

Plan accordingly. The upside is that the content of the panels (except for whatever clips the studios show) will be on YouTube within a week thanks to amateurs and professionals, so you’re only missing the admittedly awesome experience of being there in the room with the people. I’m not dismissing that – being 30 feet away from the cast of Chuck while Jeffster rocked our socks off is one of my favorite SDCC memories of all time – but at least you can see what happened if you miss it.

Know your zeitgeist!

SDCC covers a lot of things. People are excited about Guardians of the Galaxy and the new Doctor; Game of Thrones is blowing up and True Blood is ending. Oh and I think there’s something going on with Star Wars? You can predict that related events will be mobbed. At press time the schedule was not yet posted – it should be a week from now – so I don’t know what will be trending. For example, this year is the 10th anniversary of Lost and the Lost panels in Hall H were always mad scenes, so whether Lost is your thing or not, you should know that if your thing is competing with or coming after Lost, you should get in line earlier than you might think.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment of ConSurvival!

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May 242014
 
Welcome to WyrdCon

Welcome to WyrdCon

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Wyrd Con 5 opened to participants on Thursday, May 22 at The Westin LAX. Programming falls into one of several tracks to make it easier for attendees to decide how to shape their schedules. The “What Is?” events focus on broad overviews of various events and toolsets, and were designed for the newcomers at the convention. “Mixing” track events focus on panels and activities that combine design and development. Transmedia and Live Action feature prominently in these. The “Creation” workshops have expanded this year to embrace the Maker community members, focusing on using various toolsets from the con discussions, applying skills in different medium and events. The dinners, dances, and other more social opportunities fall under the “Con Event” track, and some events are exclusive for the “Steward” badge holders.

It is easy to discern that Live Action Gaming remains a primary draw for many convention participants. Walking through the halls of the hotel, guests can easily wander past sword fighters practicing with foam weapons (“There’s a tournament in just two weeks! I have to be at my best!”), women in flowing silk saris, men in top hats or bowlers, and young people packing nerf guns and dressed in homemade artillery bandoliers.

True, entertaining at the Wyrd Con 5 Opening Party (as Hodja Nasruddin)

True, entertaining at the Wyrd Con 5 Opening Party (as Hodja Nasruddin)

Gaming adventures, workshops, and even more classes! Thursday’s schedule was packed with fantastic opportunities. “Conductrr Training Masters Class” hosted by Robert Pratten, introduced the Conductrr software suite for interactive transmedia development. “Jim Butcher Writing Workshop, Masters Class,” a six-hour professional writing course hosted by the reknowned author Jim Butcher, was described by one new author as completely life-changing. And for the late-night participants, the “Werewolves of Millers Hollow” game was run until midnight on Thursday, the fifth year for this game at the con.

Thursday night started with the Wyrd Con Opening Party, featuring “True Thomas the Storyteller” (Robert Seutter) treating the guests to traditional tales from the Middle East. True’s spotlight stories focused on the Tales of the Two Rings of King Solomon, and then treated guests to short stories from the Hodja Nasruddin traditions, in between raffle ticket drawings. Over a dozen Steward pass holders won 15-minute one-on-one sessions with Wyrd Con guests Jim Butcher (author of the Dresden Files), Barri Evins (working film producer and screenwriting instructor), and Todd McCaffrey (author). And on Thursday night, dozens of well-dressed men and women enjoyed a ’20s-themed Casino Night and Flapper Charity Ball.

After the Stewards Wyrd Anniversary Dinner on Friday night, participants were treated to “Story Telling with Todd,” an improv storytelling game led by featured guest author, Todd McCaffrey. In the first round, Ira Ham (event coordinator and founder) and Robert Seutter (featured storyteller and workshop instructor) joined several members of the audience as they played, “Give us an Occupation, an Object, and a Place.” Several stories had the room roaring with laughter and playing along, such as waving their jazz hands/elephant trunks while at the circus with the Third District Comptroller. Ah, the fun of improv and storytelling.

When paper lanterns double as accordions, all to save the elephants.

When paper lanterns double as accordions, all to save the elephants.

The second Wyrd Con storytelling contest brought fifteen hopeful contestants to the stage, each sharing five-minute original tales, histories, and even song with the audience. At the end of the night, Jim Butcher, Todd McCaffrey, Mallory (Mauri), and True Thomas awarded first place to Chris’s tale of the “Best LARP Ever,” his experiences at SEAR (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school in the military, and second place to RJ’s personal story of his visit to France and the weight of life’s experiences. Each winner will be going home with signed books from Jim Butcher.

Friday scheduled courses during the day included Jim Butcher Q&A and Todd McCaffrey’s Ramblings, opportunities for participants to enjoy questions and answers from two featured authors. In the Creation track, the “Weapon Making workshop” introduced foam sword-making techniques for beginners. Gamers enjoyed “Dying Kingdoms–Political Theature” Friday afternoon, with pre-generated cast characters available for newcomers. “Experiential Entertainment: Fad or Future” appealed to Gaming and LARPer participants, as did the “Association for the Advancement of Rights for Fairytale Creatures.” Gamers interested in XCom videogames had a chance to try out a LARP version at “X Command Resolve.”

Todd McCaffrey hosted a class on “Outlining for the Faint of Heart” to help writers take the pain out of the outlining process, looking at why it can be an exceptional tool for any writer. “Sewing for Beginners 102″ examined patterns and how to use them, a skill that many people have long sought. Other classes on Friday included “Wonder Women of the 21st Century,” “Writing to the Chinese Curses,” “Getting Your Foot in the Door: Breaking into Hollywood,” “Myth and Folklore in Modern Media” (a panel discussion with storytellers and mythologists), “Creativity That Lasts,” “Don’t Drop the Spindle” (an introductory course in making yarn or thread by hand on a drop spindle.

Finally, it was very encouraging to see the first topic in the Wyrd Con handbook reads, “Community Code.” With so many conventions having issues with misogyny and harassment, the conference staff has established a Code of Conduct for the community gathering, spelling out very clearly that harassment or discrimination would be not tolerated. The code details the exact behaviors that would be grounds for action, and the measures that would be taken if necessary. Every age and walk of life seems to be here at the con, and it was reassuring to see that the Staff remains committed to making the event enjoyable for everyone. Well done, staff, well done.

The future date for Wyrd Con has not yet been announced, but they are moving back towards the fall period of the year in 2015. This has always been the best time for Wyrd Con.

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Apr 172014
 

kepler186f_artistconcept_1by Ralph Carr, contributing writer

So, the boys at NASA Ames in Mountain View, California, have found a planet, which is Earth-sized, and on the cool edge of the “Goldilocks” region of the system: the region at which liquid water, if it exists, can be found. The planet, Kepler-186f, as it is fondly known, orbits a class-M dwarf (Red Dwarf) star in the Cygnus (The Swan) constellation, about 500 light years from us.

The thing that has caught the attention of NASA is that it is the first Earth-sized planet to be found in the Goldilocks zone, and although nothing is known yet about the planet’s composition or mass, yet, if it proves to be of Earth-type mass, then it will be big enough to hold its own atmosphere. If Earth conditions were replicated then it would be rather chilly, with the sun at midday, only being equivalent to an hour before sunset here … so exactly the same as mid-summer in Wales! Joking aside, we don’t yet know if 186f has an atmosphere, or what its composition is, if it has one.

Though the planet is potentially habitable, at a distance of 500 light years, Kepler-186f, is out of reach of the human race, with its current technology. At present achievable speeds, (Voyager I reached velocity of 38,000 mph) and an unhindered passage, an Earth ship would take 886,000 years to get there.

When you look at how we behave in close quarters, it is doubtful whether present-day humans could get there sociologically, never mind technologically.

The SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) organization is involved with the Kepler adventure, and the search for ET at home goes on.

To be of real use to the human race, an exo-planet would have to be very close to Earth (less than ten light years), lower on the evolutionary scale (no intelligent life forms), capable of supporting or having vegetation (for renewable oxygen), and myriad other favorable conditions. In addition, Earth energy supplies would have to be a fraction of current prices, to even begin considering colonizing.

So, it seems that even if Kepler-186f were a mirror copy of Earth, our chances of getting there are, with current tech, vanishingly small, and we have no way of enjoying it, but from afar. Still, it stirs the imagination to think of the future possibilities.

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