Thursday, August 31, 2006

Moving the Planets

I seem to be stuck on planets, don't I? Bear with me, I'll be done soon.

In my last post, I suggested a classification system. The focus of that system was the objects themselves -- how to look at an object and know what it is.

The IAU has complicated the issue by adding 'how it moves' as part of its classification system. I believe that is a seperate issue, and once removed from the 'what kind of an object' question is fairly easily resolved. The object either is gravitationally bound to something else, or it isn't. That something else can be named.

So Luna is a planetoid bound to Earth (a satellite) but at some time in the future, it'll likely be bound to the sun. But it will still be Luna.

This issue is important to me as a science fiction writer because I move things. In my Terraforming Project stories, I move Ceres and Vesta into orbit around the Earth. The objects don't change their basic nature, unless 'how they move' is part of that nature. Asteroids become satellites. I also move gas giant moons into orbit around the sun. Satellites promoted to 'planets'.

From this perspective, it's plain that 'how it moves' is not part of the nature of the beast. Yes, it's part of an object's history. And yes, it makes a difference in how to predict where you can find it in the sky. But a moon doesn't morph into a planet. It is moved into a planetary orbit. Picking up a salt shaker from the table and putting in a cabinet doesn't change a salt shaker into a different kind of object.

It's important to get this clear, and quickly. We're discovering extra-solar, non-star objects every day. Are they planets? The IAU's definition says we can't know because we don't know how they move.

I rather like the practicality of the Stargate shows. They don't care. They call them 'P-numbers' planets, but its obvious by the gas giants seen in alien skies that many of them are moons. Hey, if you can walk around on it and breathe, it must be a planet.

The human race is on the verge of a flood of new planet-like objects, and its time to cut loose a lot of old baggage. Let's have a soft spot in our hearts for the 'Classic Planets', but don't let past restrictions color what we need to do.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Planet Classification

Since I've become disillusioned with the IAU's planet classification system, and since I'm a science fiction writer, I've decided to make my own system.

Here is my proposed naming and classification system. Feel free to suggest alternatives. I will probably be using this system when I get back to my grand future history, multiple novel epic, The Terraforming Project. See this link for info.

Planets are visibly star-like objects , which move in relationship to the fixed star background, and that can be seen with the unaided eye from Earth. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn

Gas Giants Large objects dominantly composed of gases, but which do not use fusion to produce their own heat. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

Stars Large objects dominantly composed of gases, but which do use fusion to produce their own heat.

Planetoids Objects dominantly composed of solid matter, which has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Luna, Mars, Ceres, major moons of gas giants, Pluto, Chiron, Xena, and other trans plutonian objects.

Asteroids Objects dominantly composed of solid matter, which have sufficient gravity to hold smaller objects on their surface. Moons of Mars, asteroid belt objects, smaller moons of gas giants, etc.

Clutter Solid objects which do not have sufficient gravity to hold smaller objects.

Notes: Rather than be wordy, I left the obvoius exclusions off, e.g. a planetoid can also hold small objects by gravity, but that doesn't make it an asteroid.

I'm curious what people think. Any obvious problems?

Within these classifications, there would be subclasses, as needed. Planets is just a historical class and isn't really useful for newly discovered objects, unless we get a visitor from somewhere else, like in "When Worlds Collide".

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pluto is Out, Confusion is In

According to the latest IAU resolution, our solar system has 8 planets, a smattering of dwarf planets, satellites, and zillions of SSSB's. See text of the resolution below.

I am very disappointed in this definition. If it lasts, then our language will have to mutate to get around the difficulties.

Taking the science fiction perspective, 'planet' has become an unusable technical term. Consider the following events:

Our resolute star ship captain pops into a new solar system. "Give me a long distance scan." The science officer scratches his head and says, "I detect several large objects, including gas giants, terrestrial globes, and rocky barren globes."
The captain askes, "Planets?"
Science officer, "I'm not sure. Give me a few days to calculate their orbits and scan for dust particles before I can make that determination."

You see, by putting criteria 5A.1.c into the mix, we can't tell if that earth-sized globe with blue oceans and clouds hanging there before us is a planet or not. In fact, on a technical basis, I'm not sure even the remaining 8 planets will survive the cut.

Pluto was removed from 'planet' status to 'dwarf planet' because its orbit crossed Neptune's orbit and therefore 'has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit'. But what about Neptune? Doesn't the existence of Pluto crossing its orbit make that gas giant a 'dwarf planet' as well ( ignoring that it's larger than all the other terrestrial planets put together)?

And what about trojan bodies? There are clusters of asteroids that ride in the L4 and L5 trojan points of Jupiter's orbit. (The Trojan asteroids -- that's where the name comes from). Doesn't that make Jupiter a 'dwarf planet' as well?

Add another telescope and I bet we can make all the planets into dwarfs.

No, the best solution was the one that was circulated a few days ago that didn't include 5A.1.c and gave us 12 planets. It's definition was based on the the object itself, not the orbit.

In fact, as I suggested earlier, the word planet may have to go away. Make a classification system (like Star Trek's 'Class M") for the size and shape of the object, and another classification system for orbital characteristics (star-centered, doublet, satellite, etc.)

I suspect the IAU definitions won't survive intact, or will be superceded by a more usable system altogether.

The IAU therefore resolves that "planets" and other bodies in our Solar System be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:

(1) A "planet"1 is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A "dwarf planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2 , (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects3 except satellites orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar-System Bodies".

1The eight planets are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
2An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planet and other categories.
3These currently include most of the Solar System asteroids, most Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), comets, and other small bodies."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Heat

The house central airconditioner has gone out. Probably just the fan, but I'm waiting for the repairman to arrive...sometime. Of course, my office is out in the RV, but there's a problem there as well. We don't have the required 30-amp outlet necessary to plug in the RV's shore power cable. I'm using an adapter, but I have to be careful not to exceed the current limits or I'll pop the circuitbreaker.

As a result, I'm only using one of the two roof airconditioners on the RV, and to be honest, it just isn't enough on a day like today. In the photo, you can see that it's hot in here. Up to 92.7 as I type. Still, it's better than in the house.

The biggest problem is that the characters in my story are currently sailing Lake Michigan in early June. I wish I were there.

The Lost Scene

I lost a scene today. It wasn't serious, just about a page on the manuscript, and it was in recent memory, so it didn't take too long to re-create it. But I'm sure it's about 50 words shorter than the original version, and I don't know what I left out.

Microsoft Word again. The old problem. If I leave the document open for too long, Word refuses to do a save. It had been about three days this time. When I'm working day and night on a story, it's all too easy to leave the window open. Yes, I save regularly. Yes, I have autosave turned on. But it isn't enough.

So when the dreaded error message showed up, I went into recovery mode, highlighting many pages of text and copying them to the clipboard and then quitting without saving (the only option other than crashing Word on purpose). My mistake this time was that I had been too productive, and my clipboard text was one scene short. Software error + human error = lost scene.

I need to quit out of Word every single day, and that's not my habit pattern. Most of my programs are left on and running for days, weeks, on end. Only Word gives me a problem. Tick. Tick. Tick. Sooner or later, it's going to be replaced.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Texas Highways

Mary Ann Melton, my wife, is a nature photographer. She does other things as well, but her heart is in nature shots. Lately, she'd been hunting about, seeking markets for her work. It's a shotgun approach, as it is with my writing. Send a large variety of material out into the marketplace and hope something sticks.

She's had a bit of success, winning awards in museums and getting a raft of POTD's (Picture of the Day) at various websites. Her material has shown up in publications as well, but one of the prime targets she's pursued, Texas Highways, has finally bought one of her photos. It's in the current issue, September 2006 on page 21, illustrating a place in Lost Maples State Natural Area.

You can get the magazine in bookstores, at least locally here in Texas, or directly from the Texas Highways website, or from Amazon Texas Highways.

It's interesting that of all the spectacular photos she sent to the editor at the magazine, he chose a photo illustrating a scene you're likely to see any time of the year, not the famous trees in the fall. This was the theme the editor was pushing, and since the limestone cliffs weren't as glamorous as the leaves, Mary Ann almost didn't include the shot that was actually bought. That's a little bit of publishing wisdom I've learned over the years. Let editors be editors. Give them more than you think they might want. Let the editor reject it if it's not wanted, don't try to be a mind reader and reject your own submissions in advance.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Bizarro Earth Would Not Be A Planet

The part of "IAU Resolution 5 for GA-XXVI" that describes the planet definition, states "A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet."

I've been watching the latest IAU debates over the definition of a planet for a number of reasons. Of course, I'd have to memorize all those new planets, but it'll also affect some stories I've written. One novel in progress (set in the future) mentions the rivalry between the settlers of Ceres and those of Vesta including their sporting events. If Ceres gets to be a planet and Vesta doesn't, well, that'll be an interesting escalation of the ill feelings.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Out the Window

You know you're still living in the country when a crop dusting plane is doing its pivot turns just outside your window. I've been fascinated by crop dusters for decades. They even found a way into my fiction. In Falling Bakward South Dakota sunflower farmers fought off the pterodactyl-like aliens in an Air Tractor AT-503A.
I chose that one because it was a two-seater, which is pretty rare in a crop duster.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Audio Science Fiction

One staple of any good science fiction con is the dealer room. I'm sure they could call it something else, but the vaguely druggie name is actually approrpriate for all the addictive things you can discover there and absolutely must buy. Last night I picked up a book and devoured the first fifty pages during supper.
This morning I discovered Allen Kaster and his table of audio books.
We talked for a while as I asked all about his business. His is one of those typical American stories. He traveled and couldn't get enough good science fiction audio books for his own use, so he started the business of publishing stories on cassette and now on CD's. He does a mail order business from his website AudioText & Infinivox while maintaining a real life as a Chemistry teacher.

It was fascinating to listen to his story, and of course I was full of un-needed advice on where to advertise. Honestly, I haven't bought any audiobooks, except for those I found as podcasts on iTunes, but having experienced that, I may just bite the bullet.

Hmm. His website takes PayPal.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Armadillocon 28

I don't have to travel across the country for this science fiction convention, since it's in Austin (that little town south of Hutto). It also has the great attraction of having a lot of my favorite people in attendance.
The first people I saw, before I'd even reached the registration desk, were Scott Cupp and Bill Crider. Scott was busily re-assembling his book collection. Shortly before I arrived, his massive display of rare and collectable books had collapsed as the table on which it was stacked had given way.

Of course, as we were all three writers, the first topic of converstation was our latest blog postings.

(My apologies for the blurry photos. It was night, indoors and I'd turned the flash off.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Home Office

Yesterday, or the day before, I snapped these photos from the seat at the table where I work. This is in my RV and when we're not on the road, this is my office. I apologize for the photo quality, but they're here just to give you the idea. We've been lucky to live on this property, with the pond on the other side of the trees and a lovely expanse of green.

I have a office inside the house, and it's a bit cluttered right now. But for sheer isolation, I love being here in the RV. It's probably the isolation, rather than the beauty, that makes this my favorite spot to work. No phone calls. No television shows in the next room. No people walking by. While the RV was in the shop for a couple of weeks, I spend a lot of time staring at a space poster on the wall and listening to my music with high-isolation headphones. And even then, it's not the best, because when people talk at you and you don't respond, it can seem rude.

I value the ability to listen to my own thoughts. I hate distractions. That's the reason I regularly cull political speech out of the list of blogs I monitor. It's not that people's opinions aren't valuable, but that it channels my thoughts away from where they should be into silent arguments over things I can't influence.

So, I miss out on wonderful wit and insights I don't share. But when it comes down to it, the clock is ticking. When my last scene is written, I would rather have produced more stories, and made fewer political points.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Virtual Desktops

Today was another SteveNote day, when Steve Jobs comes out on stage and shows off the upcoming toys. While I didn't pull out my wallet today, the previews of the next version of the Mac operating system had a welcome addition -- virtual desktops. I've been using Desktop Manager, a third-party solution, for some time now, and I can't live without it, even though it is self-described as 'alpha quality'.

Using virtual desktops allows me to lay out my work on a huge pallet, and switch from one section to another with a click on the little pager I have shrunk down to micro size in the lower left corner of my desktop. As you can see, I have configured ten pages of my my laptop's screen, and over time I have settled into a comfortable working arrangement. Desktop 1 is my writing outline and notes. I also keep my wordcount tracker there.
On desktop 2 I have Word running, taking up the whole screen and the text zoomed out for comfortable reading. On other pages I have my Mail, my web browser, my personal organizer, iTunes, etc.
It's especially nice for applications that really want the whole screen to work properly, like Google Earth. With ten screens, most of the time I can have all my tools and features available just a well-remembered click away.

I've used virtual desktops of one kind or another since I first discovered them under X on unix workstations. Seeing them come as a supported part of the Mac environment is welcome. While Desktop Manager works great, it hasn't been updated in a long long time, and I worry that it won't be available when I move to my next computer.