Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Funeral

I am going to a funeral today: the brother of an old friend. I knew Ted from the time he was five or six. He grew up to be a fine, well respected doctor and died at 61, way too early.

I knew he was ill, but did not realize how ill. I am shocked and sad for his family.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Putrefied Skate

From today's Iceland Review:
Skate Served St. Thorlákur’s Mass in Summer

A skate “mass” will be celebrated at Gardur on Reykjanes peninsula, southwest Iceland, tomorrow, St. Thorlákur’s Mass in summer. Putrefied skate is traditionally eaten on St. Thorlákur’s Mass in winter, December 23, and this is a new tradition.

In addition to skate, salt fish and salted fish cheeks will be served and various performances will take place during dinner, which is a charity initiative, Morgunbladid reports.

Ásmundur Fridriksson, mayor of Gardur and the skate celebration’s organizer, said 240 people have already confirmed their attendance and he is expecting 300 guests in total—a full house.

“We who like skate use every opportunity to eat it and therefore this celebration has become very popular,” Fridriksson explained.

Glenn Greenwald Is Crabby Today

From his Column in Salon:
That's really the only relevant question: how much longer will Americans sit by passively and watch as a tiny elite become more bloated, more powerful, greedier, more corrupt and more unaccountable -- as the little economic security, privacy and freedom most citizens possess vanish further still? How long can this be sustained, where more and more money is poured into Endless War, a military that almost spends more than the rest of the world combined, where close to 50% of all U.S. tax revenue goes to military and intelligence spending, where the rich-poor gap grows seemingly without end, and the very people who virtually destroyed the world economy wallow in greater rewards than ever, all while the public infrastructure (both figuratively and literally) crumbles and the ruling class is openly collaborating on a bipartisan, public-private basis even to cut Social Security benefits?

* * * * *

The answer, unfortunately, is probably this: a lot longer. And one primary reason is that our media-shaped political discourse is so alternatively distracted and distorted that even shining light on all of this matters little. The New York Times' Peter Baker had a good article this weekend on how totally inconsequential squabbles dominate the news more or less continuously: last week's riveting drama was the bickering between the White House and Nancy Pelosi over Robert Gibbs' warning that Democratic control of the House was endangered. Baker quotes Democratic strategist Chris Lehane as follows: "Politics in D.C. have become Seinfeldesque. Fights about nothing."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

From the Wall Street Journal

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as "poor man's pavement." Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.
I got this story via Atrios, whose comment was:
Moving forward into the 21st century.
Patrick's comment was:
Next they'll tear down the aqueducts.
These stories are worth finding. They help me write science fiction. Imagine a future America without the current highway system.

What isn't worth much is the daily reports about power struggles in Washington.

Storm

A major storm system went through the Twin Cities last night with strong winds, hail, heavy rain, flash floods and tornadoes. Where we are got rain, a lot of lightning and some wind. Not bad. Though it's always a little anxiety-producing when the storm-warning sirens go off.

This morning is gray with more storms predicted. The big event of the day is going out to buy storage boxes to pack our books. We are having the apartment recarpeted, which means moving everything from the living room into the bedrooms while the living room is done, then everything into the living room while the bedrooms are recarpeted.

Patrick is going to see a friend this afternoon. I plan to run the roomba and write.

Correction: The Weather Service is no longer predicting storms, but the sky remains low and gray.

Addition: Pat has decided to visit his friend tomorrow, so I will go out to write. I don't like writing with someone in the same room who might talk to me. That's what so lovely about coffee shops, though I am bothered by business meetings and conversations on cell phones. I can usualy move away. Libraries are quieter, but they don't allow coffee.

Astronomy Photo of the Day (from NASA)


Two galaxies are squaring off in Corvus and here are the latest pictures. But when two galaxies collide, the stars that compose them usually do not. That's because galaxies are mostly empty space and, however bright, stars only take up only a small amount of that space. During the slow, hundred million year collision, one galaxy can still rip the other apart gravitationally, and dust and gas common to both galaxies does collide. In this clash of the titans, dark dust pillars mark massive molecular clouds are being compressed during the galactic encounter, causing the rapid birth of millions of stars, some of which are gravitationally bound together in massive star clusters.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Spending of the Top 5%

This is from the New York Times:

... The Top 5 percent in income earners — those households earning $210,000 or more — account for about one-third of consumer outlays, including spending on goods and services, interest payments on consumer debt and cash gifts, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by Moody’s Analytics. That means the purchasing decisions of the rich have an outsize effect on economic data. According to Gallup, spending by upper-income consumers — defined as those earning $90,000 or more — surged to an average of $145 a day in May, up 33 percent from a year earlier.

Then in June, that daily average slid to $119. “I think a lot of that feeling that the worst was over has sort of abated,” said Dennis J. Jacobe, Gallup’s chief economist.

Although real estate brokers in Manhattan and the Hamptons report that buyers at the high end have returned, and Mercedes sales in the United States are up 26 percent this year, other indicators suggest a slowdown.

$210,000 a year is not enough to insulate you from economic changes. It's doctor or lawyer money, an upper middle class income.

My new dentist is in southwest Minneapolis. I get down there, and the people look different. Most of the women and girls are blond; and most people have that golden glow that comes from a lifetime of good nutrition, good health care, good education and fairly solid financial security.

I figure I am looking at the upper middle class, who look different from most of the people I see.

But the kind of income that gives this golden glow is not the kind of income that allows you to buy a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or a house in the Hamptons.

(I checked. One million dollars will get you a one-bedroom apartment (750 to 1,000 square feet) in Manhattan below 34th Street. Houses in the Hamptons vary, but most of the ones I saw listed were well over a million dollars. At the height of the real estate boom, you could buy a house valued at more than five times your income. But can you now?)

What the Times is probably saying, though I am not sure, is that the upper middle class is worried and cutting back on spending, while the rich -- the people who buy apartments in Manhattan and houses in the Hamptons -- are still laying out money. But the Times is being very fuzzy in the way it does not divide the upper middle class from the rich and super rich.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not to most Americans, who are not upper middle class. That golden glow that come from $210,000 is as unobtainable as an income of tens of millions of dollars.

But fuzziness is one of ways that American society avoids thinking about class. We fold the working class into the middle class, then fold the middle class in with the rich, so we are all one social mass, except for the irritating poor.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Writing

I went to the post office and the library yesterday, then read in a coffee shop and took a walk by the river. The day was hot but not humid. In evening I did some work on an old story. I have finally figured out a plot for it.

Today was grocery shopping, which is the high point of every week. I like buying groceries... Good coffee, English marmalade, cheese, free range eggs... I will buy produce tomorrow at the farmers market.

I have four stories almost ready to go out.

Then it's time to get to work on the novel.

The idea is to spend less time worrying about politics and more time hanging out in coffee shops, reading light fiction and writing.

Unemployment by County 2007-2010

video
The darker colors are higher rates of unemployment. Black, which covers most of the country by the end of this video, is unemployment in excess of 10%.

Minnesota was maroon, purple and black (6% and up) when Patrick and I got laid off in April, 2009. Now it is mostly purple and black (7% and up).

The video is available on You Tube and is by LaToya Egwuekwe.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sunset

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

James Galbraith in Common Dreams

James Galbraith on what needs to be done:
We are in the post-financial-crash. We need to do what the U.S. did during the New Deal, and what France, Japan, Korea, and almost every other successful case of post-crash (or postwar) reconstruction did when necessary. That is, we need to create new, policy-focused financial institutions like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to take over the role that the banks and capital markets have abandoned. Thus, as part of the reconstruction of the system, we need a national infrastructure bank, an energy-and-environment bank, a new Home Owners Loan Corporation, and a Gulf Coast Reconstruction Authority modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. To begin with.

A reconstructed financial system should finance the reconstruction of the country. Public infrastructure. Energy security. Prevention and mitigation of climate change, including the retrofitting of millions of buildings. The refinancing of mortgages or conversion to rentals with "right-to-rent" provisions so that people can stay in their homes at reasonable rates. The cleanup and economic renovation of the Gulf Coast. All of this by loans made at low interest rates and for long terms, and supervised appropriately by real bankers prepared to stay on the job for decades.

None of this is happening. As Grace Lee Boggs points out in the preceding post, the US government seems incapable of doing what needs to be done.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Report from the US Social Forum in Detroit

From an essay by Grace Lee Boggs in Common Dreams. The lady is 95 and still raising hell.
Over the intervening years (since the founding of the US) Americans of many different political persuasions have questioned whether these Founding Fathers should be revered as great sages. But as we enter the 21st century and the age of globalization, it is widely recognized that the representative democracy they devised in the 18th century falls far short of the governance we need. Not only is it unable to regulate derivatives on Wall Street and reduce foreclosures and unemployment lines on Main Street. It is proving itself powerless to save life on Earth from extinction by global warming. Before the eyes of the world it is demonstrating its impotence in the Gulf of Mexico and in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Astronomy Photo of the Day (from NASA)

What's happened to that moon of Saturn? Nothing -- Saturn's moon Rhea is just partly hidden behind Saturn's rings. In April, the robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn took this narrow-angle view looking across the Solar System's most famous rings. Rings visible in the foreground include the thin F ring on the outside and the much wider A and B rings just interior to it. Although it seems to be hovering over the rings, Saturn's moon Janus is actually far behind them. Janus is one of Saturn's smaller moons and measures only about 180 kilometers across. Farther out from the camera is the heavily cratered Rhea, a much larger moon measuring 1,500 kilometers across. The top of Rhea is visible only through gaps in the rings. The Cassini mission around Saturn has been extended to 2017 to better study the complex planetary system as its season changes from equinox to solstice.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Today

I went to the library and found a new Gene Wolfe novel that looks good. Went to a coffee shop and finished revising a story. Admired the Mississippi River. Got envelopes to mail out copies of "Mammoths of the Great Plains." Bought fancy salsa. Came home.

I Am Off To Write Today

Right after I finish this blog entry. My mood finally lifted.

The challenge in this world is -- how can we honestly see reality and not be depressed by it? It can be done. Howard Zinn is an example of someone who saw injustice and fought injustice his entire life and yet always seemed able to retain his optimism and good humor.

So, what is the secret? How does one fight segregation, war, injustice, poverty and bad art, and not get depressed?

Zinn has an essay on "The Optimism of Uncertainty" which can be found here. It's well worth reading.

My answer would be:

Exercise. Eat good foods. Find things to enjoy. Be true to yourself and your beliefs. Work at something you care about. Pay attention when the good guys win and celebrate their victories. We are often told, "There is no alternative" to the world as it is. This is a lie. People show us again and again that alternatives exist.

Remember that history is full of surprises, as Howard Zinn points out.

Rat with Teddy


This photo is from Yves Smith's economic blog, which is a very good source of cute animal photos and dire economic news. I enjoy both. I especially enjoy cute photos of rats. So here is one.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Posting on Economics

I suspect my posts on economics are the least valuable posts I do.

Personal material -- including my experiences with unemployment -- is useful, because personal material is always important. That's what makes history: the diaries of farm wives, the letters back home to the old country.

What I write about writing and science fiction has some use, because I'm a science fiction writer.

While I am clearly interested in economics, I am not an expert. Why do I write about it? I'm trying to understand it. I'm not alone. The Internet is full of people who are trying to understand the world economy, because it is twisting their lives into knots.

Being a Writer and a Public Intellectual

I feel I ought to apologize for so many posts. I will slow down when I feel better and can get back to exercise and writing.

There was a discussion on Crooked Timber on possible jobs for a young person in love with literature. Most of the posters said the job market for academics was terrible and it was a poor idea to get a PhD. It was an especially poor idea to go into debt for a PhD.

People suggested teaching in a public or private secondary school, teaching English as a second language in a foreign country, becoming a translator, becoming a librarian, going into law or some kind of advocacy, since these require good language skills, and becoming a writer.

There are obviously problems with all of these in a bad economy. I think the advice on not going into debt is really good. In some ways, the discussion made me feel good that I quit before finishing my MA, though I have friends who finished their PhDs and became college professors and enjoy their work.

I quit because I didn't know what I was doing in school or in my life. I knew I wanted to write, and decided the best way to do this was to get a day job that wasn't too demanding and write in my free time. So I became a white collar worker, a clerk in an office, and I gradually picked up bookkeeping and accounting skills.

One of the people posting said it wasn't possible to write good fiction while holding a day job. It was too exhausting. And another person -- or maybe the same one -- said it wasn't possible to be a public intellectual outside academia.

Both these statements seem untrue to me. Plenty of people do good and useful intellectual work outside academic settings: free lance writers and artists, independent scholars, scientists working for organizations other than colleges and universities.

And people do manage to write good fiction while working at many kinds of jobs.

Heinlein

This is something I posted on the blog Crooked Timber.
Thanks for the links to Kessel and Moorcock. I enjoyed the Moorcock essay a lot. It reminded me why I liked New Worlds so much. I think Kessel is wrong. I can still remember the night—rereading The Green Hills of Earth at the house of a friend of a friend in Altoona, PA circa 1970—when I realized what an awful writer Heinlein was.

The links mentioned were to an essay by John Kessel on Heinlein and one by Moorcook on the politics of sf and fantasy, which he considered mostly right wing and awful.

(Moorcock's essay is Starship Stormtroopers, easy to find on the Internet, but I'm having trouble linking to it.)

What interested me is I can remember when I decided Heinlein was a bad writer: the place, the book, the time of day. This tells me it was an important and disturbing experience.

Kessel is impressed by Heinlein's early short stories and compares his style favorably to Hemingway. Some of the early stories are quite amazing. I especially like "All You Zombies," which foreshadows Heinlein's later work: closed systems, populated by young Heinleins, old Heinleins, male Heinleins and female Heinleins.

Kessel's field is literature. He knows this stuff better than I do, and I respect his opinion. But I find Heinlein's work ultimately false. He is best when he deals with an individual or a very limited group of people, who are often -- usually? -- idealized images of himself. He had -- in his early work -- some really neat ideas, which have stayed with me for decades. But you can only go so far with an inward-turning narcissism.

I loved his work when I was a kid, the short stories and the young adult novels. But I don't think his stories ever hit me the same way as work by Tenn, Leiber, Davidson, Kornbluth, Knight, Bester... Think of the size of Clifford Simac's City or Asimov's Foundation stories, compared to the size of Heinlein's world, which was always tiny. He could never see beyond himself.

When I say this, I have to add -- I haven't read Heinlein for decades. I gave up on his novels after Stranger in a Strange Land and I gave up on his short fiction on that night in Altoona.

The Visible Hand # 4

It's a good idea for individual companies to reduce expenses as much as possible. Lowers costs give them an advantage in the market. They can reduce prices or increase their profit margins.

Since labor costs are often a huge part of expenses, it makes sense for companies to break unions, cut benefits, speedup work, lay off US workers and move work to third world countries. However, if a lot of companies do this, then a lot of ordinary people, who are both workers and consumers, are short of money.

Wages have not gone up for ordinary American workers for the past 30 years. For a long time, till the collapse of the housing market, many Americans were maintaining their life style through debt: borrowing against their homes and using credit cards. This has stopped, and the result is a recession which may become a depression.

As I have already said, it is good business to cut labor expenses, but the economy in general suffers, and businesses suffer when consumers -- finally -- are unable to buy.
Another example of the visible hand.

There are ways to solve this problem, through laws and government regulation. But the point is, left to themselves and their own self-interest, businesses will injure the general society and themselves.

This is very obvious stuff. People have known it since the 19th century. That's why the government has intervened so often to regulate business and to invest in the general welfare.

I guess the question is, do we want to continue with a system which is self-destructive unless it is tightly regulated and rescued over and over?

The Visible Hand # 3

I've been under the weather the past week, very discouraged by the behavior of Congress and then slightly ill. So I have been entertaining myself with the visible hand, rather than doing the things I normally do, such as exercise and write science fiction.

Another examples of how acting in one's own best interest does not benefit the economy...

It's a good idea for individuals to build up a savings account, or so we are told, and it sounds right to me. And it makes good sense for individuals to reduce their household debt. However, the American and world economies depend on consumer spending. If large numbers of people save, spending on consumer goods goes down, and the result can be a recession. The prudent behavior of individuals, acting in their own best interest, can lead to layoffs and hard times.

This is happening right now.

One could, of course, think about creating an economy where this problem does not occur. Right now, the government could invest in education, infrastructure repair, the environment, energy... This would create jobs. Individuals would have money, which they could use to pay down debts and save, maybe by buying government bonds, which would help fund the government.

Everyday Chaos

This is from a post by Immanuel Wallerstein. I'm not able to link to the complete essay, but you can get to it by Goggling Immanuel Wallerstein. It's his February 15 commentary on everyday chaos.
You know you're living in a chaotic situation when (1) the mainstream media are constantly surprised by what is happening; (2) short-term predictions by various pundits go in radically different directions and are stated with many reserves; (3) the Establishment dares to say things or use words that were previously taboo; (4) ordinary people are frightened and angry but very unsure what to do. This is a good description of the past two years throughout the world, or at least in most parts of the world...

As a result, governments are faced with impossible choices, and individuals even more impossible choices. They cannot predict what is likely to happen. They become ever more frantic. They lash out by being protectionist or xenophobic or demagogic. But of course, this solves little...

So, this is what everyday chaos is like - a situation that is not predictable in the short run, even less in the middle run. It is therefore a situation in which the economic, political, and cultural fluctuations are large and rapid. And that is frightening for most people.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Courtesy of NASA and Astronomy Photo Today


On May 29, looking southward from a vantage point about 350 kilometers above the southern Indian Ocean, astronauts onboard the International Space Station watched this enormous, green ribbon shimmering below. Known as aurora australis or southern lights, the shifting, luminous bands are commonly seen at high northern latitudes as well, there known as the aurora borealis or northern lights. North or south their cause is the same though, as energetic charged particles from the magnetosphere pile into the atmosphere near the Earth's poles. To produce the characteristic greenish glow, the energetic particles excite oxygen atoms at altitudes of 100 kilometers or more. Aurora on May 29 were likely triggered by the interaction of the magnetosphere with a coronal mass ejection erupting from the Sun on May 24.