Sunday, October 28, 2007

Broadacre City

These are two drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright's "Broadacre City." The question I have is, what is the difference between modern architecture and science fiction?


We went to the Georgia O'Keefe show at the Minneapolis Art Institute today. I did not think it was a very strong show, and if it was all we'd seen, I would have felt bad about paying for the tickets.

But the Institute is one of those huge museums, full of every kind of art. After seeing the O'Keefe show, we wandered through the Native American galleries. There was Northwest Coast art, Inuit art, work from the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica and Peru. Patrick said the work he likes the best, that means the most to him, is from the woodland and northern plains cultures. I think the same is true for me. These are the native people in this part of North America, the people we have met, and whose art we have studied the most. We know something about the underlying cultures.

I love ancient Mayan art. Of all the ancient styles, it is the one that seems most contemporary to me. The paintings on pots often have a sketchy, almost cartoony quality; and while the stone figures are formal, the little clay figures often have the relaxed poses and expressions of modern people. You look at a guy with a big feather headdress and crossed arms, and you can imagine him tapping his foot or drumming his fingers. Some of the gestures in the paintings have a gay extravagance and mockery. "Well, if that's the way you feel about it, Smoking Jaguar, you can just..."

But it is an aristocratic art, created for a ruling class that practiced warfare and human sacrifice. The Mayan ruling class was five inches taller than the common people, as result of better nutrition.

The native art from the Upper Midwest was made by people without social classes. Granted, the women made clothing and ornaments for the men, but they also made clothing and ornaments for themselves. They were making their houses, their horses and themselves beautiful.

Patrick and I then went to another part of the museum to look at an exhibit on two Frank Lloyd Wright buildings: a modest house he designed for a University of Minnesota professor in the 1930s, and his only filling station, which was built in 1956 and is still intact in Cloquet, Minnesota. The house led to Wright's later usonian houses, which were designed for ordinary people without servants. The filling station was from the plans for Broadacre City, Wright's utopian vision of American cities in the future. Nothing else in the Broadacre plans made it into the real world. But the filling station did.

A small house for people of modest means and a gas station in a small Northern Minnesota town. I'm trying to think if these are as down to earth as an Anishanabe bark basket or a pair of Lakota moccasins.

Speaking of which, what is the Anishanabe word for moccasin?

Fall Colors

Patrick and I drove south along the Mississippi yesterday. It was close to a perfect fall day: cool air, a clear blue sky. The staghorn sumac along the highway was a bit past its prime, but where leaves remained, they were red. The aspens and birches and cottonwoods were their usual extraordinary bright yellow. The oaks were brown and red-brown and orange.

On the way down, we swung past the buffalo preserve on the Prairie Island reservation. The bison were there, close to the road, though they began to move away when we stopped. No pictures this time.

We went down to Pepin and stopped at the BNOX Gallery, one of our favorite places. I think it has the best contemporary jewelry in the area, and I am a very serious fan on handmade jewelry.

One of my fantasies is to have nothing but nomadic belongings: jewelry, textiles and rugs. When it's time to move, I put on the jewelry and the textiles, roll the rugs and throw them on my camel, then climb on the camel and head out. The only other thing I would need is a laptop and Internet access.

On the way back, we went through the Prairie Island reservation again. An adult bald eagle appeared out of nowhere and flew across the road right in front of us. "Eagle! Eagle!" I shouted.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Blue and White Towboat

The rain has finally stopped, and we are having crisp, clean fall weather. Maybe not as cold as it ought to be, but still pleasantly cool. The fall colors are muted this year, I assume because of the rain. There is a lot of dull gold, and not much red.

Yesterday morning, as we crossed the Mississippi, I saw the little blue and white towboat, pushing its two barges of gravel north. This means the 35W bridge is out of the river, and the Port of Minneapolis is once again open.

Yesterday evening, as we came home, there was a full moon in the pink evening sky.

Very nice.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


The Star Tribune, our increasingly unuseful local newspaper, is doing a series on fertility medicine. The first article used the word miracle.

Ex utero fertilization is not a miracle. The loaves and fishes is a miracle. This is medical technology, and if you call it a miracle, then safe modern abortions are also miracles.

I would love to see the mass media call birth control and safe abortions miracles. In a sense, they are -- certainly as much as the increasingly complex and bizarre ways that medicine is finding to get people pregnant. Safe abortions mean that many women live, who otherwise would die. Birth control means women don't have to have abortions or children they don't want.

P.Z. Myers, the very popular science blogger from Morris, Minnesota, linked to a cartoon recently. The cartoon argued that forbidding abortion is a way of controling women. This led to a very long discussion in P.Z.'s comments about "when human life begins." Since he is an out atheist, who is frank about how strange and unconvincing religion seems to him, I don't think he gets many conservative religious readers. I assume his readers are mostly science fans or atheists.

The anti-abortion people have really managed to make us all obsess about this question.

In part, our obsession is due to our recognition that modern medicine is changing the rules of life and death and making us wonder what a human is.

But a lot of it has been due to a very successful campaign of (it seems to me) confusion and disinformation.

There is something fraudulent about all the anti-choice billboards in Minnesota that show fat, happy, white, six-month-old babies with never a mother in sight. In what sense are these kids threatened? What exactly is this message? The white race is at risk? Parenthood and family life are at risk (though we never see the parents, just the happy, healthy kids)?

Maybe the message is, we are no longer able to raise fat, happy, healthy, white kids. Something in the country has changed, and our children are not as full of possibility as these kids seem to be.

If the issue is human life or the safety of children, why don't we obsess about war? Or the miserable lives of many children in the US? Of course, many people are concerned about these issues. But there are not billboards all over Minnesota showing dead and injured Iraqi kids.

Anyway, I found it interesting that a bunch of science fans of a blog by an evolutionary developmental biologist, a guy who studies how fertilized cells become living organisms and who knows how complex this process is, end in the same old discussion about the ethics of abortion.

Maybe this could be called a miracle of modern communication. In some sense, the billboards work.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It's the Economy

Patrick was checking the MSN Encarta encyclopedia for homelessness and ended on the causes of the Great Depression. He said it sounded a lot like the current situation: an increasing distribution of the nation's wealth up to the upper classes, which happened partly because profits were rising and wages were not, and partly because there were tax cuts for the rich; rising consumer debt, as credit expanded and the mass of Americans were encouraged to buy goods they could not afford; and finally a huge financial bubble.

We have had all of this is the past 20 or so years.

There's an old Detroit story that goes as follows:

Henry Ford (most likely Henry II) is walking through a car planet with Walter Reuther, one of the legendary founders of the UAW.

Henry says to Walter, "Look around. Someday all these jobs will be done by robots."

Walter answers, "Who's going to buy the cars, Henry?"

The point of this story is, the way to keep a modern economy going is to make sure the mass of workers have enough money to buy the stuff you want to sell.

If you distribute wealth up, two things happen. (1) Either the economy will go into a recession, because workers don't have money to buy the goods the factories are producing, or the workers will go into debt, until they run out of credit, and then they will stop buying and then the economy goes a recession. (2) The rich will invest the money they get, but since they will have more money than they can productively invest, they will end by investing in a financial bubble.

All this was common wisdom when I was a kid. Now it is not. The financial safeguards set up by Congress in the 1930s to prevent another Great Depression have mostly been removed, because they interfere with the "free market;" and we have a financial bubble and huge consumer debt and economy that is finally slowing down.

So, what happens next?

Robert Kuttner testified before Congress this week on the alarming similarities between 1929 and the present. His testimony can be found here.


Patrick and I drove to Duluth on Saturday. When we left the Cities the temperature was rising toward the mid 80s; and the humidity was so high that officials of the Twin Cities Marathon (which was run on Sunday) warned runners that they would be at risk. Apparently you can't sweat properly when the air is extremely humid.

October in Minnesota is supposed to be cool and crisp.

We stopped at a Starbucks north of the Cities and bought coffee and two CDs, Songs of Mass Destruction by Annie Lennox and Magic by Bruce Springsteen, and played the CDs as we continued north.

Both are dark, written very much under the influence of the war against Iraq, it seems to me; though there are not a lot of direct references to the war, except he title of the Lennox album.

I like both, especially the Springsteen. The E Street Band is amazing.

When we reached Duluth the temp was 50. Fog hid the tops of the hills. There were whitecaps on the lake, and a gusty wind blew through Canal Park. We did the usual things: watched a ship leave Duluth Harbor (photos to follow) and checked out various shops. Patrick bought me a book on David Salmela, a wonderful Finnish American architect based in Duluth. Much of his work had a Scandinavian cleanness and brightness; and he uses wood like a Finn, which means he uses a lot of wood, and he uses it with respect.

On the way back, we played the Springsteen album again, then went on to Neil Young's Living With War and Steve Earle's The Revolution Starts Now. We both like Earle a lot; and the Young album is growing on us. "Let's Impeach the President" is a great sing-along song.

Back in the 1960s, my friends and I spent a lot of time trying to decode music and movies. What did they tell us about America and the American people? What did "I believe the time is right for violent revolution" actually mean? (I know the Stones were English, but they were popular in the States.)

I don't know what Americans are thinking now. They seem oddly quiet, given the awfulness of the situation we find ourselves in.

On the other hand, the temp went down on Monday; and it is seasonally cold now.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Adam Smith on War

I found the following quote from Adam Smith in Glenn Greenwald's blog on the Salon website. I like it a lot.

The ordinary expense of the greater part of modern governments in time of peace being equal or nearly equal to their ordinary revenue, when war comes they are both unwilling and unable to increase their revenue in proportion to the increase of their expense. They are unwilling for fear of offending the people, who, by so great and so sudden an increase of taxes, would soon be disgusted with the war; and they are unable from not well knowing what taxes would be sufficient to produce the revenue wanted.

The facility of borrowing delivers them from the embarrassment which this fear and inability would otherwise occasion. By means of borrowing they are enabled, with a very moderate increase of taxes, to raise, from year to year, money sufficient for carrying on the war, and by the practice of perpetually funding they are enabled, with the smallest possible increase of taxes, to raise annually the largest possible sum of money.

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

Greenwald feels this quote accurately describes how the people inside the Washington beltway -- the politicians and pundits -- regard the war against Iraq. It is "the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies" and "a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory."

And taxes have not gone up even modestly. Instead, they have been cut, and the people inside the beltway have not had to pay for their amusement at all.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Romance and SF

Apparently somewhere in the blogosphere, there are people complaining about romance writers using SF tropes or SF writers using romance tropes, I'm not 100% sure which. Lyda Morehouse posted about this on the Wyrdsmiths blog, and here is my response to her post...

There are obvious overlaps between romance and SF, maybe more than between SF and mystery. All three come out of the Gothic tradition. SF shares a love of logic and problem solving with the mystery and shares a liking for the romantic (in its old meaning) with romance. The original name for SF, which I still like, is "scientific romance."

In addition, a fair amount of SF and fantasy is pretty obviously romantic in the modern meaning of the word. I think at once of a lot of Lois Bujold, especially Komarr, A Civil Campaign, The Curse of Challion and its sequel. Bujold has tied some fancy knots in the standard romance plot, but the power of many of her books is romantic.

The same is true of Cherryh's Foreigner series. The emotional power comes from the story of a many times tested romance, though Bren Cameron is in love with an entire species, as well as specific members of the species, especially his two bodyguards, one female and one male. Talk about a tall, dark and handsome love object! Bren has millions!

Catherine Asaro has set out very deliberately to write SF with classic romance plots. My favorite book by her is The Last Hawk, which puts her hero through four or five classic romance plots in a row, only he's in the female role. She does the same thing in Ascendant Sun, a book I find more problematic.

In general, SF romances are written by women, which is hardly surprising, given what many -- possibly most -- women read as they are growing up. I read mostly SF as a kid, but I also read Jane Eyre more times than I can remember and every book by Georgette Heyer I could find.

I am talking here about novels that belong firmly to the SF tradition, by authors with good SF creds.

In addition, it's obvious that a fair number of romance readers are interested in SF and fantasy themes. Romantic Times is reviewing SF; and there are romance sub genres that deal with vampires and time travel and what have you.

I'm not a fan of genre romance, so I can't comment on it. I would not be surprised to find that romance writers make mistakes when they try to write SF. There is often a problem when people outside the field write SF. They haven't read enough; they don't know the rules; they don't know when they need good science and when they can make do with handwaving.

However, a kind of literature that has so many readers must be saying something important. What is it? And should SF writers be exploring this topic or group of topics?

This is pretty clearly a male vs. female issue. In general, it's women who write and read genre romance. I won't go into why women like this kind of story so much, except to note that marriage is an important decision, and in many societies it's made for women. The classic romance is about a woman making her own choice about who she will marry, which is not a bad idea.

Why aren't men interested in finding their soul mate in a society where marriage is by law monogamous and where all the studies indicate that men do much better married than they do single? Who you marry is a huge life decision, much more important than the decisions in male action fiction, which are mostly imaginary decisions, since most men are not professional soldiers or CIA agents or whatever.

What we are seeing here is a response to two facts. There are a lot of women in SF these days, and they are writing what they like to read; and men in general don't read as much as they used to. The male genres -- war stories, westerns, male action of every kind -- are a small part of the market now, though science fiction still manages to produce and sell a lot of male action.

Complaining about romance in SF is ultimately complaining that there are too many women in SF. Too bad. I will get bent out of shape about romance in SF, when men get bent out of shape about military space opera, also known as crypto fascist military bullshit.

P.S. I reread Lyda's post, and it looks as if the complainers are complaining about SF in the romance genre, not romance in the SF genre. I'm going to leave my post as is, except to remark that I see no reason to worry about what happens in romance, unless you are threatened by the size of the romance market. It's not our field.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Weather in Minnesota

At the moment, we are having a lot of rain, and a lot of the rain is heavy, which means more flash flooding along the little rivers in the southeastern part of the state.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my mood goes down in the fall. Overcast days don't help. My mood will lift a little when daylight savings ends, and I no longer get up in the dark; and it will lift if the rain stops. I'd like some of the cold, crisp, bright weather we used to have in October in Minnesota and seem to have less often now: blue skies and golden foliage, with splashes of red from the sumac and maples.

November doesn't have the shortest days, but it tends to be overcast. I always think of it as gray, though it can be lovely on when the sun is out.

I have come to terms with Christmas. I used to think it was commercial and full of a sentimental, close-to-fake religiosity. Now I think, xmas lights! Over-the-top gold and glittery decorations! Luminous dwarves in front yards! Bring it all on, so long as it holds back the dark a little.

Halloween is also good: candles flicking in pumpkins, gaudy costumes, orange and yellow and black decorations.

I sometimes wonder what it says about our culture that Halloween has turned from a kid's holiday to an adult holiday and keeps getting more and more important. What do the ghosts and goblins and witches and skeletons mean? Why do so many people decorate their yards and houses? And why do we now have Halloween theme Christmas tree ornaments? Are they supposed to go on the tree in December? Or are we supposed to hang them up at the end of October and pray to the Goddess for two feet of snow?


This is from the new Seymour Hirsch article on preparations for a war with Iran. Most of the article is about American preparations for war. But Hisrch also says this:

A senior European diplomat, who works closely with American intelligence, told me that there is evidence that Iran has been making extensive preparation for an American bombing attack. “We know that the Iranians are strengthening their air-defense capabilities,” he said, “and we believe they will react asymmetrically—hitting targets in Europe and in Latin America.” There is also specific intelligence suggesting that Iran will be aided in these attacks by Hezbollah. “Hezbollah is capable, and they can do it,” the diplomat said.


Per Hirsch, the US Army wants no part of another war. But the Navy and Air Force feel they haven't had their fair share of the action in Iraq. So the idea would be to bomb Iran with planes based on Navy carriers in the Persian Gulf. Also per Hirsch, Chaney thinks it will be a quick in and out: bomb key locations in Iran and then go home victorious.

Again per Hirsch, Israel is not entirely happy with this plan, because they aren't sure the US will be able to take out the right targets: the atomic sites (such as they are; the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is nowhere close to atomic weapons, if they are trying to make them) and presumably Iran's air force and its missiles.

If the Chaney plan does not work, the next step might be an extended war with the bombing of civilian targets, since modern warfare always seems to turn against cities and women and children. (Since the word "civilization" comes from the Latin for city, maybe we can say that every modern war is a war against civilization.)

If the Iranians are able respond in kind, they are likely to. Why should they sit quietly, while death rains down on their people?

We don't know if any of this will happen. But the Bush Administration is certainly making the same kind of noises they made before attacking Iraq. And Seymour Hirsch has a very good reputation.

Remember the famous line in The Princess Bride: "Never get in a land war in Asia." We are in two land wars in Asia already, and we are looking at creating a war zone that goes from Pakistan to Syria.

It's always possible I'm being too negative. My mood always goes down in the fall, when the days shorten; and it's been raining a lot here. Maybe my darkness is due to the external darkness. But just in case, why not write or call or email your congresspeople and say you don't want another war?

And maybe we need to get out the old signs and songbooks. "Peace now!" "I ain't gonna study war no more."