Monday, February 22, 2016

The Moon Forever Stamp - Encouraging Observations of our Awesome Moon

Photographer:  Beth Swanson
Designer:  Greg Breeding
Art Director:  William Gicker
The Moon Stamp is here, with a release date of February 22, from Washington, DC!  Being a lunar scientist who also loves stamps, this is a really fun event for me, and one that helps remind us all how easy it can be to just look up and see our cosmic companion in orbit.  The Moon has been gazing down at us since almost the very beginning of Earth's history.  But it has only been geologically very recently that something intelligent has been gazing back, pondering, writing poems, and eventually, exploring.

The USPS site says: "Taken as the full moon rises, the image captures the brilliant surface of earth’s only natural satellite.  Issued at the $1.20 price, this Global Forever stamp can be used to mail a one-ounce letter to any country to which First-Class Mail International service is available."

I agree with Kelly Beatty at Sky and telescope, who says in this article that "The golden orb is pretty, though the USPS might have have provided a "teachable moment" by using a cycle of lunar phases in its 10-stamp sheet, rather than merely showing the same image over and over."

Gorgeous sheet of stamps, but would phases have been a better way to engage the public?
Not surprisingly, the USPS chose to unveil it's stamp on the date of full moon itself, February 22 18:20 UTC.


Get ready, InOMN is October 8, 2016!
That the Moon changes with time is obvious if one looks at the Moon even casually a few times over the course of a month.  Still, what causes the phases of the moon is a source of confusion for people, since it isn't as simple as something like clouds or the Earth's shadow.  Instead, the phases are caused by the geometry between the Sun, Moon, and Earth.  You can investigate phases further through the NASA Starchild site, and even make some Oreo cookie phases from an activity at NASA's SpacePlace.

Having spent this time learning about the Moon's phases has probably made you want to take another, closer look.  While anytime is a great time to go look at the Moon (weather and phase permitting), there is one night a year that is particularly special.  That is International Observe the Moon Night, or InOMN.  InOMN is a yearly celebration where people the world over all gaze at the Moon together; the site has listings of events, activities, and ways to get involved.

Moon Mappers - You are the scientist!
And now that you've spent all this time learning about Moon phases, observing the Moon, and gushing over the Moon stamp, you want to do some real research.  I know exactly how you feel.  One great way to get involved is with Moon Mappers, a part of CosmoQuest Virtual Research Facilty.  If you want to engage in great citizen science that actually gets published in peer reviewed science journals, then head on over there. Click on the "Moon Mappers" button, and start mapping the Moon!  Don't miss all the other great projects, either, that will have you taking data all over the solar system (and beyond ...)


Image Credits:  Stamps!  The United States Postal Service, InOMN Logo, InOMN resources site, Moon Mappers, CosmoQuest.org.  Visit them all and learn more!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Research for Fiction Writing - The Pheasant

A pheasant before all that
hunting and prepping business.
I am always amused by where I end up when doing research for my fiction writing.  You know how it goes - you want to write a few sentences about some topic or other, and the next thing you know you've spent five hours on the internet learning all about it so those sentences are at least somewhat informed.

Before writing the scene I just finished, I had no interest in learning about how to hunt and then prep a pheasant for consumption.  And then one of my characters in this scene decided to hunt and prep a pheasant for consumption.  Again, you know how it goes ...

I really knew nothing about it at all.  I imagined I'd just have my character saunter off, shoot a pheasant (bow and arrow, we are talking fantasy here) then roast and eat said pheasant.  Then I got to thinking ... what about all those old-timey movies and paintings showing pheasants and rabbits and such hanging from the ceiling?  What's the deal there?  And what about the game Skyrim?  Can't walk thirty paces without running into rabbits and pheasants hanging from metal contraptions or even fallen on the floor.

Pheasant and rabbit hung
from ceiling - as one does.
My character was out camping, so he really didn't have the time to hang a pheasant from the back of his horse for a day or a month or whatever.  And then I'd assume when he finally ate it, it would probably taste a lot like the back of his horse.  Maybe this pheasant idea would not work out after all.  But characters, as you know, can be persistent.

So off to the wonderful world of the internet.  I'm a bit squeamish, so this was not easy research.  I did find out that yes, one basically saunters off and just shoots a pheasant.  Takes time, know-how, skill, and the rest that you'd expect, but no magic there (which is funny, again since I am writing a bit of fantasy at the moment).  Ok.  Only have to watch for shots that tear the gut open and might contaminate the meat.  Lovely.  So my character happens to be an excellent shot ... And of course with a shotgun there is actual bits of metal in your bird to avoid, but again, I'm in a bow-and-arrow situation.

So, we assume bird-in-hand, literally.  Now what?  Well, as it turns out, that whole hanging thing is really just for birds that are other than very young ones.  The young ones are tender enough without hanging.  BUT of course, most birds in the wild are not very young just statistically speaking.  Most are middle aged, and some are rather old.  So hanging a pheasant was sort of required to ensure it was tender.

Let me be more specific.  Hanging a pheasant.  Some sites recommended three to seven days.  Of just hanging at cool, not cold, temperatures.  Not hot at all, because that would be gross, but not actually wintertime sort of stuff, either.  So you just go ahead and hang the pheasant from it's head, not upside down.  And let it ... sit ... there.   For days.   Or more.  Some sites suggest that in ye olden dayes, people would allow the pheasant to hang until it was so ... rotted ... it dropped.  And then you knew the meat would be tender.  Seriously.

I think I'll chalk this up to my naivete.  Chalk up the fact that this had never occurred to me.  All the press and advertising around food is about how it should be fresh.  So very fresh.  Well, apparently you do not want old pheasant meat to be fresh.  Apparently you can eat it rather ... not so fresh.

Whatever.  I had what I needed for my character.  In the end, yes, he just sauntered out and shot a pheasant.  Because, aha!  It just so happened to be a young pheasant.  No need for it to hang from the back of the horse until it fell apart.  Yea!

Still.  There is the preparation to consider.  And so I read more about plucking pheasants when they are cold and hot and wet and dry and warm and whatever to really keep me satisfied for some time.  I'll not put the specifics down.  But I know a heck of a lot about plucking pheasants now. (Yes there is a naughty little song about this, let's not go there.)

And as with most of this fiction-style research, it isn't really going to be terribly useful now that the scene is written.

Image Credits:  Pheasant.  Used under Creative Commons 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, author Lukasz Lukasik.  Hanging Hare and Pheasant, 1798, Swiss National Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Considering that First Draft of that NaNo Novel

I was over at Ana Mardoll's "Ramblings" blog and spotted this post, with a pie chart describing the first draft of a novel.  The pie chart is from Finding Wonderland, and it shows a humorous breakdown of what a first draft of a novel might look like.  Ana Mardoll uses the plot to illustrate the importance of rewriting that first draft.

It was inspiring.  I am definitely in the write-rewrite-iterate camp of writers.  Edits and rewrites are what make musings turn into masterpieces (more or less).  Anyway, I took out my draft of my NaNoWriMo novel and paged through, looking for what *my* first drafts seem to include.  Being a scientist with data in hand, I had to plot it up of course, with many thanks to the inspiring influences:

My version of a plot inspired by Finding Wonderland and Ana Mardoll - It shows the general contents of the first
draft of my NaNoWriMo novel.  It is surprising how my first drafts all seem to look pretty much like this.

The first half of chapter one turns out to be all completely unnecessary conversations between characters talking about their lives and stuff.  I thought it made good sense when writing, and now I see I can just jump right in to the action and really not lose anything at all.

Also fun to note is that I have far too many homages to various pop culture icons and works, such as the Hitchhiker's Guide, MST3K, Star Wars, and even the Simpsons.  I really want to keep them, which is something of an indication of their need to go.

And wow, there are a lot of holes here.  Especially the times I say "We'll have that discussion with so-and-so soon" and either the discussion never happens, or so-and-so does not actually exist in the book.  Or both.  I also see that I get through my initial draft writing by just jumping past anything that stumps me.  Say like important connecting scenes.  Or the names of anything at all.

Of course keep in mind this is a NaNo draft, which means one is trying to write like crazy to get those 50K words by the end of the month and still have time to cook and eat a Thanksgiving turkey.  So leaving gaps behind is a very functional strategy - for a draft.

And the sex scenes, well, most of them are actually plot critical.  So I guess I'll just have to make sure I send them to a publisher that likes that kind of thing.

In the end, I'd say about 50% of what is here is workable, and the other half just needs to get thrown out.  My challenge is figuring out which half is which ...

Image Credit:  My pie chart of my novel data.  Inspired by Finding Wonderland via Ana Mardoll.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Writing Another Textbook - Everyday Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs

A few science books in the collection ... and now I
can add one of my own among them!  Happy!
I wrote my textbook "Inner Planets" during a very difficult time.  It was a struggle to write a single word, let alone the 80 thousand necessary to finish the book.  Without my courageous co-author, it would not have come together.  Still, I'm very proud of the outcome.  We worked hard, and the textbook is a great undergraduate introduction to the inner planets.  The chapters on different processes are especially well done, with my favorite being the one on radiometric dating, a subject near and dear to my heart.  The introduction is actually very useful as well, with a glimpse at major ideas in science and how scientists approach their subject.  My co-author did an outstanding job with the history of the various missions to the planets.

It was gut wrenching to get that book out, but times have changed, and my health is much more stable.  I'm also in at a point where my science and education contracts are not carrying me for 100% of my time.  With all that in mind, when a friend hooked me up with a publisher last year, a publisher looking for a graduate text in planetary sciences, I jumped on the opportunity.  I convinced my previous co-author that this was an opportunity not to be missed, and we put together a winning book proposal and signed a contract.

So January has been filled with writing and research.  Tough going in places.  Fortunately I know lots of experts in various fields, and am interviewing them as often as possible.  My co-author and I want to create a really useful and gracefully written book.  As I said, it's still been tough.  Writer's block isn't just a fiction writer's problem, it's just a problem in general ...

Going through exercises like NaNoWriMo means I can put my head down and just produce text, no internal editing (or not much internal editing), giving me something to work with.  It's a very good skill to have acquired.  I have created a good outline to work from, but the reason why the book will be useful is that there really isn't anything quite like it out there.  So I'm doing a lot of trailblazing in terms of content.

And every month from now until October requires me to turn in a draft chapter.  About 7K words each (on average) plus figures and images for each one.  Trivial in terms of word count, but a challenge in terms of highly targeted, effective, and informative word count.  It's going to be a wild ride, but I am committed and focused on creating something any instructor of planetary sciences will want to use, and any graduate student of any related science will want to own and read.  It will also be useful as a resource for scientists who want to either brush up on some things, or get a head start in an area that's out of their discipline of choice.

AND of course ... I'm still trying to jam in a bit of fiction writing.  It's been about ten months, I think, since I've submitted any of my work, anywhere.  Much too long.  I've plenty to get out there, but submission takes a solid, dedicated effort, and I want to be sure I'm sending my material to the places that it really fits.  Again, that takes research.  But research is something I'm supposed to be good at :) 

Image Credit:  My pic of my books

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mixing Genres in Speculative Fiction: Another Look

Astronaut Wizard by Jordan Grimmer
jordangrimmer on Deviant Art. 
I am a huge fan of work that encompasses more than one genre.  Regardless of it is a game, a movie, a work of art, a novel, or whatever - I'm always pleased to find myself in a complex world, with many strange or scary or wonderful things afoot.  I've written before about crossing genres, first in an introductory post here, and then a follow up here.  Still, things have changed since that first post (back in 2010), and I felt it was time to once again sing the praises of mixed genre work.

The artwork at right "Astronaut Wizard" by Jordan Grimmer (jordangrimmer) is an evocative visual display of multiple genres.  The artwork does such a good job of focusing our attention on the juxtaposition - all the light is on the magic hand reflecting off of the helmet.  The rest of the suit and background are lost in shadow.  I enjoy how it jars the imagination - one does not expect magic from an astronaut.  Just the thought makes the mind race with possibilities and questions.  What would space exploration be like with magic at hand - in this case, literally?  What would our past have been like (historical fiction) or our future (science fiction)? 

As far as novels, I read Watership Down by Richard Adams when I was about nine years old and adored it.  On the surface it is a fantasy about rabbits seeking a new home, but it includes so much more - political maneuvering, adventure, mystery, and even a nod to the supernatural.  It's also a very literary book, as far as I see it.  Thinking of it as a fantasy seems limiting, even if basically correct.

Sometimes science fiction is even better with mystery, or romance, or a bit of something scary thrown into the mix.  Certainly the scariest movie I've ever seen was Alien and it was, again on the surface, straight up science fiction.  But wow.  Horror.  Really incredible suspenseful horror.  I'm getting creeped out just thinking about it.

And then how about video games … I'm thinking of the Steampunk groundbreaker "Arcanum" which included magic, robots, monsters and more.  It even felt a bit like a western in places.  My character was always suited to be an arbiter - someone who solved problems by negotiation, and tried to avoid conflict.  This led to navigating some interesting political situations.  There were mysteries to solve, as well as battles to be won.  A generally great, complex game. 

So back to writing.  Fortunately, the tide has turned as far as the acceptance of cross-genre work.  Although it might still be difficult to pitch and categorize such work (and therefore difficult to sell such work) readers seem to be quite keen to read it.  There are lots of posts and articles that will give you tips and hits on how to write and pitch something that includes multiple genres.  I've put a few here as examples you might want to peruse.

Alan Rinzler, Ask the Editor:  Is it OK to cross genres?
Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz, Mixing It Up:  Writing Across Genres
Brian Klems, How to Write and Sell a Cross-Genre Novel

And there are a lot of commonalities between the articles. Here are a few take-aways for writers.

1. Read any genre you want to write in. Make sure you actually like what you are reading, and are motivated and enthusiastic about the genre. Be sure to understand the conventions, and what it is that gives a particular genre its appeal.

2. Focus on story. That means as you are writing, worry less about genre and more about creating a really compelling story that people will clamor to read. As usual, the reader has to care what happens to the characters. And something interesting does need to happen, somehow …

3. Stay consistent. No matter how complex the world, stay consistent within that world.

4. Eventually, you will need to know the primary genre of your piece. No matter what, there is a dominant genre in your work somewhere. It might not be by much, but it is in there. This is important information when trying to pitch or advertise your piece, or when trying to figure out how to tag or select keywords for searches. After all, readers have to start somewhere when they are looking for a new read.

5. Be confident. Don't listen to people who say you can't or shouldn't mix genres. If the story calls for it, then write the story.

Image Credit:  Astronaut Wizard by Jordan Grimmer, jordangrimmer on Deviant Art. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Naming Revisited - Pluto and Charon Get Tagged

Informal names for features on Charon
In my post on "Naming Astronomical Objects - Power, Productivity, and Privilege," I noted that naming astronomical objects was a serious issue (indeed, that naming anything was a serious issue).  I also mentioned that there was a tension between being able to name things fast enough (given the rate of discoveries) and that of wanting to be thoughtful about it.

The New Horizons Mission to Pluto found a unique way of dealing with that situation when they offered a poll this spring, asking people to vote on what their favorite names would be for potential features in the Pluto system.  The campaign was called "Our Pluto," and thousands of people responded to the call.  The campaign ended in April 2015, allowing the New Horizons team to be ready with a pocketful of names when they arrived in the Pluto system in July 2015.  Before long, the first maps of Pluto and Charon were constructed, and the informal names given to the features were indeed those chosen by people from the Our Pluto voting. 

Informal names for features on Pluto
And many of the names are surprising, given their origins in popular culture, such as "Mordor" and "Balrog" from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Vulcan," "Uhura" and "Kirk" from the Star Trek franchise, "Skywalker" and "Organa" from the Star Wars Universe, and "Cthulhu" from Lovecraft's mythos.  These names have been submitted to the IAU for formalization - it will be interesting to see how that body chooses to react, or if any of the names will be considered unusual at all.

For the most part, I really like the names, and many people agree.  Authors of articles in The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Wired, and io9 talk about the good aspects of the naming campaign, and that they feel positively about these names potentially becoming permanent.  But given my previous post on the issue, I feel just a bit edgy.  One issue we've come up a lot with in the SF, F, H community is dealing with great work from not-so-great people.  The issue has been discussed at length more than I can do justice to here, but was dealt with head on using necessary honesty by Nnedi Okorafor in a post (has swearing) about winning the World Fantasy Award.   (So the place name "Cthulhu" for example, may not be a universally lauded name ...)

Still, we're a democratic society, and voting is as close to public participation in official naming that has come to pass on a major planetary body (in my opinion).  I agree with many of the authors of the articles in that having the public involved is a wonderful thing.  It does not absolve us of our need to be vigilant in naming, but it does offer the opportunity to create and nurture community while we do so.

Image Credit:  NASA/JHU-APL/New Horizons

Saturday, August 1, 2015

It Was a "Very" Interesting Week

I did indeed do my experiment to eliminate the word "very" from my writing and speech for a week.  It was actually ten days, for reasons that are opaque even to me.  Anyway, here's what I discovered (at least for what is pertinent my own word usage.) 

"Very" in speech isn't easy to remove.  Substituting other words often results in conversation that doesn't seem natural to the ear.  Reconstructing sentences to avoid the need for the word seems to make for stilted speech.  While the exercise has expanded my thinking, I've chosen to change my word usage in speech by only a small amount.  This holds for most of my written dialogue as well, which isn't a surprise.  It is easier to spend the time to construct good sentences without "very" in them during writing as opposed to "on the fly" during speaking - so it is in fact easier while writing to reduce the use of the word and still create believable dialog.  But not using it in a situation where someone would "obviously" use the word again makes for conversation that just comes out wrong. 

But as for writing, I found many places where I was using "very" in a lazy fashion.  This applies to all kinds of writing - my blog, essays, papers, fiction, whatever.  A little extra effort in any place where I was about to use the word "very" usually resulted in a more interesting and more exact sentence.  This might mean using a different word, or better, restructuring to eliminate the need for the word completely.  That is, saying what you mean more directly, rather than using qualifiers to make the point (i.e. "exhausted" rather than "very tired").  This is not news, since writing coaches and "how to's" have been giving this sort of advice for years.  Still, it is nice as both the scientist and experimentalist that I am that I have the chance to prove it for my own personal condition.

Oh yeah, I forgot to add - this was a real pain for ten days.  We speak and write so freely.  Watching every word, and then going back over and correcting for the stray "verys" that got in there?  Serious pain.

Image Credit:  Once again, it is me and my awesome PowerPoint skillz.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Week Without "Very"

Ah, the word "very."  As we know, there is much discussion about this little word in writing circles.  Let's start off with a few well known quotes about writing this word "very" ...

"So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.  A man is not very tired, he is exhausted.  Don’t use very sad, use morose," spoken by the character John Keating in the Dead Poets Society.  And there is this one, the first version of which was most likely the product of William Allen White, "Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”

I use the word "very" a great deal when I am speaking.  I hear it plenty from friends, family, in various media, at work, etc.  Yet the word is so vilified in writing.  Somehow, I wanted investigate the strange phenomenon of "very."  I kicked around a few ideas and finally settled on the concept of just not using it for a week, either in writing or speaking, unless as a direct reference.  

I'm not sure I can do it, actually, and I keep re-reading my post here to see if it has found its way in somehow.  I have a feeling this will be an interesting week.

What do I hope to learn?  I'm not exactly certain.  Perhaps there will be a difference in how hard it is to avoid in speech versus writing.  Maybe I'll give it up easily and gleefully.  Maybe avoiding it will be irritating and I'll stop after three days.  Not sure.  But let's give it a try, anyway.

Image Credit - Me and my awesome Power Point skills

Monday, November 10, 2014

And off we go again - NaNoWriMo

Amongst the crazy things one can do in November is to decide to write 50,000 words in 30 days, i.e. the NaNoWriMo challenge.  I've done this five years running now and I do like to keep up a good streak.

But.

Writing 50K words in *20* days, that's even crazier.  And that's the position that I'm in because I only just started today.  This month has been so demanding.  The whole fall has been that way, actually, with proposals to write, classes to teach, science to do, education research to publish, conferences to attend and my usual Halloween bash to throw.  And then I got sick.  For a week.

At first I figured I'd just skip NaNo this year, since it is always tough, and I really don't need the extra stress.  But that idea just wouldn't sit right in my gut.  I kept on coming back to the idea that I had this great streak going, and didn't I really enjoy the pressure in some weird way, and wasn't it in fact a great way to get some writing done after all?  In five years I've managed to produce the full drafts for about 2.5 books.  Not bad.  That on top of my usual writing means about a novel every two years.

Now if I could manage to get them edited and published ... but that's another thing completely.

Right now is about the 'write now.'  And that's what I've decided to do ... so off we go with the scary zombie/vampire story with a dash of gay romance and a twist of apocalyptic flavor.  It may never get read, but I know I'm going to have a fun time writing it.

UPDATE:  I did indeed manage to pound out the 50K again this year!  This was the easiest time I've had of any past year, as well.  (So I can never use the "I'm late" excuse not to start.)  I think it was because I had a really solid idea and some scenes and chapters sketched out in my head.  Plenty to write about.