Saturday, July 26, 2008

Money and Motivation

This is a quote from the wonderful Immanual Wallerstein, which I got from the Ambling Along the Aqueduct blog:
Generally, it is argued that monetary reward is an incentive for quality work. And I suppose generally this is sometimes true. But it is one thing to reward an artisan for quality artisanship and another thing to reward an executive for obtaining extraordinary profits for a corporation. They are different in two ways. It is clear that good artisanship is quality work. But the obtaining of extraordinary profits is only quality work if one accepts the priority of the endless accumulation of capital. It is hard to justify it on any other grounds. The second difference is the size of the reward. Increasing an artisan's income by 10 or even 25 percent for quality work is quite different from increasing an executive's income by 100 or even 1000 percent.

Is it really true that an industrial manager will only work well if he receives the kind of bonuses he can obtain in the present system? I believe it is absurd to think so. We have the clear example of many kinds of professionals (such as university professors) who are stimulated to work well not primarily by the relatively small increases in material rewards but rather by a combination of honors and increased control over their own work time. People do not usually win Nobel Prizes because they are spurred on by the endless accumulation of capital. And there are a remarkably large number of persons in our present system whose incentives are not primarily monetary. Indeed, if honor and increased control of one's work time were more generally available as rewards, would not many more people find them inherently satisfying?
---Immanuel Wallerstein, Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century

And here is my comment, which I put here to remind myself that I need to think more about markets and maybe write about them:
There are two huge lies in our current world. One is the magic of the market -- how it's possible to run societies and solve human problems through the process of buying and selling. In fact, most of what happens in every society -- the raising of children and the caring for families and communities, the creation of art, the cultivating of gardens -- happens outside the marketplace and for reasons that are not economic. One does not grow flowers in one's front yard for profit.

The other lie is that people are primarily motivated by money. People care about money, because they need it to survive. But when Stud Turkel in Working asked people what they'd really like to do, if they could do any kind of work, a very large number said either be a writer or help other people. And what the people who were talking actually did with their lives was work on human relationships and self-expression, while struggling to make enough to get by.

There are people who are motivated by money -- not by the need to get by and a rational fear of being poor in this society, but by a desire to have more money than they need. For the most part, they are either boring or scary.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


I just checked. This is from the Minnesota Climatological Working Group:

As it stands right now the latest recorded measurable snow in Minnesota remains at 1.5 inches at Mizpah in Koochiching County on June 4, 1935 and the earliest documented snow in Minnesota is a trace that fell at the Duluth Airport on August 31, 1949.

Assuming this is correct, I probably have not seen snow in June; and it has never snowed in July.


I have done two long, serious posts in a row. This post is to inform you that more sunflowers are appearing along the freeway.

I have been thinking -- when I'm not thinking about oil and war -- about summer in Minnesota. Which months are the summer months?

Someone told me that there's only one month in which no snow has been recorded in Minnesota. That is August. I have no trouble with snow in June. I've seen it. And I'm pretty sure I've seen snow in September. But snow is July surprises me. Apparently, it happened.

August is clearly a summer month; and I would add July. I tend to think of June as late spring, and September is early fall. But nowadays, with global warming, it probably makes sense to add June and September to summer.

No matter how I do it, summer is more than half over now.It's not my favorite season. In fact, I prefer all the others, though winter can sometimes go on a bit long. There are days in May, when the lilacs are blooming, and days in October, when the leaves are gold, which are flat out miraculous. A fresh fall of snow is always lovely, especially on a crisp, bright day when the temp is well below freezing.

Nowadays, we get more mild winter days. Some of these, when the trees are encrusted by soft, wet snow or frost, are quite amazing.

None the less, though I am not entirely crazy about summer, it's half over. Time flies. Where are the snows -- and sunflowers -- of yesteryear?

US Invasion of Afghanistan

The next question is, why did the US invade Afghanistan? The official story is, to get Osama bin Laden. There are two problems with this story.

1) I just did a quick Google to check my memory. According to The Guardian, the Taliban government offered to discuss turning over bin Laden to a third party for trial, provided they were given evidence of bin Laden's involvement with the 9/11 attacks.

This is more or less what I remember, and it seems a reasonable offer, given the fact that the US did not recognize the Taliban government, and there was no extradition treaty. Per The Guardian, the US government had no interest at all in negotiating with the Taliban.

2) The US quickly lost interest in finding bin Laden, who is apparently now in Pakistan, a country allied to the US. As far as I know, the US has not pressured Pakistan to turn bin Laden over nor threatened to attack Pakistan.

Why, then, did the US attack Afghanistan?

According to an article in the current Monthly Review, which appears to be based on Michael Klare's book Blood and Oil, the invasion of Afghanistan was part of a plan to control remaining oil reserves, as the world approached peak oil.

Oil makes sense as a reason to invade Iraq. But Afghanistan has no oil, as far as I know. However, it has an interesting position: east of Iran and south of the Central Asian oil fields, which are believed to have the biggest reserves outside the Middle East. An oil pipeline from Central Asia to the nearest seaport would have to go through Afghanistan (and Pakistan).

Now, I think running a pipeline through Afghanistan is flat out nuts. The Afghans would almost certainly not like it, and it would be impossible to guard. But the smart guys in the US may not have realized this.

The US oil company Unocal was in contact with the Taliban in the 1990s, when the Taliban was in the process of taking over Afghanistan. Unocal may have helped fund this takeover, per Wikipedia. At the time, Unocal was involved in development of Central Asian oil fields and looking for a way to get Central Asian oil to the sea. According to Wikipedia, "The Taliban and Unocal were in negotiations in Texas to discuss arrangements for the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan in 1997 and a deal was struck but later failed."

It's interesting to note that the Taliban, usually described as ravening fanatics, were perfectly willing to negotiate with a US oil company.

In any case, whether or not a pipeline is built, US forces in Afghanistan are nicely positioned to threaten or guard the huge oil fields to the north and west. Or they would be, if there were enough of them, and if the Afghans would stop fighting.

What the Monthly Review article argues is as follows:

It was evident by the late 1990s that world oil production was no longer adequate for world needs and especially US needs. The countries with most of the oil reserves were not investing in exploration and extraction, since they already had enough petroleum for their own use and for foreign export. It made sense for them to hold on to their reserves. It wasn't as if they had an unlimited supply. Why sell it before they needed to? And why sell it, if prices were likely to rise?

Per the Monthly Review article, Iraqi oil production was 31% less in 2001 than in 1979, and Iranian oil production had fallen 37% between 1976 and 2001.

As long as these vast reserves were controlled by national oil companies, the interests of the oil-holding nations would come first, rather than the interests of oil consuming countries, especially the US. So the idea behind the current war in Iraq was to replace the Iraqi national oil company with multinational companies based in the US. These companies would pay attention to US needs.

The second country on the oil hit list would probably be Iran. Afghanistan made the list because of its position in relation to the Central Asian and Iranian oil fields.

I find the Monthly Review analysis convincing. It may have seemed like a good plan to guys sitting in Washington, convinced that that nothing could stop the US, now that the Soviet Union was gone. Take over Iraq and Afghanistan, which would give the US access to Iraqi and Central Asian oil, and then be in a good position to threaten Iran, which would have American armed forces on two sides. It must have looked very good on paper.

At no point did the American planners consider the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, who have not proved cooperative.

It would have been much smarter to begin thinking about alternative kinds of energy. Pumping every last drop of oil out of the ground as quickly as possible is not going to solve the basic problem.

But I don't think we are talking about people who are able to plan long-range.

Footnote: This entire long post assumes that the people running this country are rational and minimally intelligent. Another theory is they're stupid or crazy or both.

Maybe the true explanation is a combination of cold-blooded, evil profit-seeking and loopiness. Iraq really does seem to be about the oil. Alan Greenspan has admitted this in his recent book. I suspect he ought to know. But maybe the US went into Afghanistan because of bin Laden, acting in the period of fear-crazed frenzy after 9/11, and then lost track of its reason for being there. Or maybe it went in because Bush wanted a war, and this one looked little and safe. Or maybe it was a test run for Iraq.

But I don't think Obama is loopy. So why does he want to be in Afghanistan, except to control a country that has a strategic position? Is Afghanistan somehow more important than Iraq? How can it be?

Friday, July 18, 2008


I encountered a remark yesterday on an economics blog that I read -- not faithfully, but often. It's a kind of remark that I've seen fairly often: the person who says, "The invasion of Iraq was wrong. But attacking Afghanistan -- that miserable, primitive, backward country that does bad things to women -- was a good idea."

There was a story on the Internet in the past week about an American plane that strafed an Afghan wedding party -- mostly women and children -- then turned and came back and strafed the party two more times, picking off the survivors. The reporter covering the story interviewed an Afghan man, who was sitting with his 12-year-old son, one of the two bridegrooms in the double wedding that never took place. The man said, "My son is the only member of my family I have left."

It's hard for me to understand how events like this improve life for the Afghans, a poor people who have already -- thanks to the Soviet Union -- endured years of a terrible war, followed by civil war and the Taliban.

However, I wanted to address the description of Afghanistan as a primitive place. I was there for six weeks in 1959, as a naive young woman of 16, traveling with my family. I liked the country a lot, though I was disturbed by the Afghan attitude towards woman.

I certainly did not learn a lot about the country, being there only six weeks and speaking only to people who spoke English. The landscape is beautiful -- stark, brown mountains above green valleys, a dust haze at the horizon, and overhead the most amazing pure blue sky. I didn't see the women, since they were completely veiled; but the men and children are as beautiful as their country.

Remember that this was long before the Taliban. The two great statues of the Buddha still stood in their niches in Bamian. We went there and my brother and I climbed to the top of the Great Buddha and stood on his topknot. (The tunnels dug by the workman still exist, and it wasn't that difficult to go up them. We weren't climbing the Buddha himself.) The country has been Moslem for a long time, though one region -- Nuristan -- did not convert till the 19th century. Before the arrival of Islam, Afghanistan was a major center for Buddhist culture; and the Buddhists left a lot of marks on the landscape. There were stupas and pillars on top of mountain ridges, when I was there. The Moslems had left them alone for centuries. I assume they are gone now, due either to the Taliban or war.

The Kabul Museum had a remarkable collection of art found in Afghanistan: Greco-Roman bronzes, amazing Indian ivories dug up by French archaeologists at Begram, an ancient trade city which now a US base (as Babylon is now a US base). I am pretty sure there were Chinese ceramics. There may have been coins from Bactria, the kingdom founded in northern Afghanistan by Greek followers of Alexander the Great. As far as I know, Bactrian archaeological sites have never been excavated or even found. But the coins are considered the best coins ever made by the ancient Greeks.

I know there was Gandharan art in the museum. Gandhara, now known as Kandahar, was a center for early Buddhist art, which was influenced by Greco-Roman art brought east along the Great Silk Route. The style spread into India, where it influenced Hindu art; and it spread with Buddhism to China. To the best of my knowledge, those robes the Buddha and Kuan Yin wear are Roman togas, which south and east Asia got from Afghan art.

The thing to remember about Afghanistan is, it sits on the Great Silk Route at the place where the Route forms a T. From there, the Route goes south to India, west to the Mediterranean and east to China. All the trade of Asia went through Afghanistan.

The region to the north was not a void. There were kingdoms and major cities there. The Sufi poet Rumi was born is Balkh in northern Afghanistan. The great philosopher Avicinna was born in Bokhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, north of the Afghan border. His father was from Balkh.

Herat in north-western Afghanistan was a part of the ancient Persian empire, the one conquered by Alexander the Great. A citadel built by Alexander the Great is still in the city, per Wikipedia; and there is a famous Mosque there, which is on UNESCO's list of world monuments, unless it's been blown up recently. In the medieval period, after the conversion of Persia to Islam, Herat was a great center for miniature painting; and the regions that are now Afghanistan produced many famous Persian-language poets.

Babar the Great, conqueror of India, was born in the one of the Timurid kingdoms north of Afghanistan, but ended in Kabul, which he loved and where he is buried. He didn't like India, which he conquered more or less by accident, while plundering to get the money necessary to maintain his kingly state in Kabul. The most remarkable thing about Babar is his autobiography. Except for a work written by his grandson in imitation, it is the only autobiography written in the Islamic world until modern times. I've read the first half. It is wonderful and fascinating document, full of love, wine, poetry, Sufi sages, Persian princelings, Mongol generals and war. Lots of war. And melons. According to Babar, the melons that his native kingdom produced were better than the famous melons of Bokhara.

At this point, we are up to the 14th or 15th century. Afghanistan has been more of a backwater in modern times, due -- I imagine -- to changes in world trade. Modern trade has been dominated by ships and Europe or the US. The region north of Afghanistan was conquered by Russia. The region east and south was conquered by Great Britain. Only Persia to the west remained independent, at least in name. And Afghanistan, though the British tried twice to conquer it.

I know very little about the culture of modern Afghanistan. According to Wikipedia, Persian poetry is still important. There are still Sufi, though the Taliban does not like them. I have no idea what else survives.

Basil Davidson encountered a learned mufti in sub-saharan Africa -- I think he was the Mufti of Bobo, a wonderful title -- who was still mulling over the fate of the medieval caliphates and who could talk about the entire history of Islam in the Middle East, Africa and Iberia as if it had just happened. Maybe Afghanistan is primitive and devoid of history in the same way that Africa is to many people in The West; and maybe there are Afghans as rooted in their past and as knowledgeable of it as the learned mufti. I know the people I met all remembered Alexander and Genghis Khan, as if they had passed through recently.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Freeway Flower report

The milkweed is about to bloom, and I have seen a few sunflowers. Otherwise, there are a lot of tall, yellow flowers I can't identify, all wrapped up in bindweed, which has round, white flowers rather like small morning glories; and there are a lot of little, white butterflies fluttering around the white and yellow flowers.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Patrick and I saw WALL-E yesterday. Pat liked it a lot. I thought it was a bit hokey, not as good as the movies coming out from Aardman. But it's worth seeing. The scenes of WALL-E toiling to crush and stack junk in a world of junk are impressive; and the scenes of his home -- where he keeps the junk that touches him -- are sweet. Patrick says the movie does a good job of showing how people behave when they are alone and lonely.

The scenes in the starship where bloated middle class Americans (they are obviously Americans) consume and are entertained while they wait for their lives to begin are also memorable, I suspect. The movie is optimistic about these folk. I don't think they will rise to the occasion.

I guess, my review is -- I liked the robots and believed in them. I have less faith in the humans.

But it's a great movie for kids. It tells them what their future is likely to be like; and it tells them to act.


I am at home today working on writing. I have sent one story, which is set in Iceland, off to a friend of a friend who is a native Icelander. He has said he'd be willing to check the local color.

Now I have to proof two stories and get them to my agent, who (bless the agency) handles short fiction.

Then, I think, I will work on an old story that I have never finally revised -- in part because it's 130 pages long in manuscript, and thus pretty much impossible to sell. But it might work as a chapbook, and Aqueduct Press has a chapbook series.

Drawings of Albert by Lyda Morehouse

This is a story I put through the Wyrdsmiths. Lyda gave back her copy with illustrations. My heroine, Big Red Mama, has a pet dwarf allosaurus named Albert. Here is Albert in two versions, one on the story's title page and one on the back of the last page.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Weather report

The National Weather Service is predicting thunderstorms with damaging winds, large hail and lightning strikes for this afternoon. This has become a pretty typical forecast for Minnesota. This is not the weather I remember. But it's what we have now. As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture; and a hot atmosphere is a more energetic atmosphere.

There was a tornado warning for Ely, Minnesota a couple of days ago. Ely is so far north that it is almost in Canada. We didn't used to get tornadoes that far north. Maybe in the Red River Valley in northwest Minnesota, which is up against the North Dakota plain. But not in the northeast forest, which is where Ely is.

My sense is, the weather is more erratic. It goes from hot to cool and back rapidly, from day to day, with more storms.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Men & Women in SF

I was asked in comments what I mean by abstraction. This is not easy to answer.

"The Cold Equations" might be an example. This isn't a real problem. It's a "if you were in a burning house with a baby and a Rembrandt, which would you save?" kind of problem.

The world is full of real problems, both practical and ethical. How can we stand to live in a world where billions of people live in poverty and die young? What can we do about this situation? This is both a problem for all of humanity and a problem for individuals. As people used to say in the 1960s, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. If you opt out of trying to act in some fashion, you are complicit.

This does not mean you are required to change the world. This is a big job for an individual. But you shouldn't go along. A guy in North Carolina, who worked in agriculture research for the state, refused to lower the flag at his research station when Jesse Helms died and has been forced into early retirement.

Would I have done that? I don't know. But he had reached a point where he could not go along.

At the moment, we are on a planet with limited resources and we need to change how we use these resources.

Maybe we can set the problem up as in "The Cold Equations." On one side, we have a political and economic system that hugely benefits a tiny minority. On the other side, we have the unmet needs of the vast majority and the planet, as well as the real possibility of environmental and social meltdown.

Okay. Question one: is there a serious ethical decision here? Question two: is Dick Chaney going to willingly walk out the airlock?

Kim Stanley Robinson has written three interesting novels about how to begin to make the needed changes.

A lot of SF is not (it seems to me) about the real problems we face; and all fiction (if it is going to matter) has to be about real experience and real problems.

Yes, the story may be set in an imaginary place, and the problem may not be one we commonly have here and now. I'm currently writing a story about a Goxhat, who is one part of a nine bodied individual, but who does not feel a sense of identity with the rest of itself. Not a typical human problem. But my Goxhat stories are about what it means to be an individual and a member of a society. These are human issues, it seems to me.

"The Time Traveler" is about evolution and class conflict. "War of the Worlds" is about imperialism and biology. "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is less easy to encapsulate. It's about treating people as animals (the inferior folk of the British empire) and about the line between people and animals. Or so I suspect. I need to reread it.

As I mentioned below, the 1950s SF writers I like wrote about McCarthyism, the Cold War and the danger of nuclear war, and the attempt (after WWII) to create a society of conformers, living in suburbs, working for corporations and consuming what the corporations made.

When I call fiction abstract, I mean it sets up false problems or offers false solutions.

I would also be inclined to call fiction abstract that says, "There are no solutions; we are doomed."

Sometimes, this is a meaningful statement. Often, it is a way of refusing to even think of taking action.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

We just got back from a quick trip to Sioux Falls. As it turned out, we did not get to Blue Mounds State Park or Pipestone National Monument. The temperature hit 90 both Saturday and Sunday; and there was the kind of intense sunlight that goes through my skin like a knife. It hurts to be out in it. Sunscreen helps, but not enough.

Instead, we went to Mitchell, S.D. and saw the Corn Palace. The exterior is decorated with pictures made from seeds: corn, wheat, grasses and so on. New decorations are designed every year, around a theme. As you might is expect from South Dakota, the art is realistic. The seeds are specially grown, giving the decorators a full palette of colors.

Corn seeds come in pretty much every color, except (I think) green.

I just checked Google images and found white, yellow, orange, red, blue, purple and black corn. But not green.

Mitchell has the only Corn Palace in the world, the billboards say.

We also visited a small history museum and an archaeological site, where a 1,000 year old Native American village is being excavated. The museum is inside, as you might expect; and the archaeological site has been enclosed. We spent very little time outside.

Birdwatching is difficult in a moving car. However, I did see a zillion swallows and red-winged blackbirds; two yellow-headed blackbirds; a couple of killdeer; three herons; a couple of male pheasants, one without a tail, which looked very odd; a large hawk, which was almost certainly a red-tailed hawk; and some small birds hovering over the median that were (I suspect) kestrels.

Birds always make me happy. They are the dinosaurs that survived.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Men and Women SF Writers

I was going to post this comment over at SFSignal. Then I decided to post it here.

I do notice -- fairly often -- that women are underrepresented in magazines and anthologies. This matters to me, because I tend to be more interested in stories written by women.

Why? Here I am going into the area of possibly stupid generalization.

I think many male SF writers think violence is cool. They do not sound as if they've had much experience with violence, and they irritate the heck out of me. More and more, I flip pages or put books down when the characters start pulling out guns, swords, death rays, doomsday machines...

Another trait, which I tend to think of male, is abstraction. A lot of SF stories by contemporary male writers appear to me to be about nothing important. I don't think this was true of the (mostly male) SF writers I grew up with in the 50s. They wrote about McCarthyism, the threat of nuclear war, and the dread suburbanization of America.

I can't be more clear about what I mean by abstraction, unless I write an essay. Maybe I will, over at my blog. The briefest way to describe it is, I finish a story and say, "Okay. It was well written. It was intelligent. It was science fictional. Who cares?"

If memory serves, I have this response more often with stories by men.

I mention this, because it's possible that the bias towards male writers is actually as bias towards violence and abstraction.

Who are contemporary male writers who do seem (to me) to write about important topics. Delany, when he was writing SF. Kim Stanley Robinson. Walter Jon Williams. Ian M. Banks, though I don't like his violence... Patrick has added William Gibson and Bruce Sterling...

Wyrdsmiths: Science!

Wyrdsmiths: Science!

Diet Coke (TM) and Mentos (TM?). Check this out.

Via Wyrdsmiths

This is Hal Duncan responding to the question, "Is there a gender imbalance ins SF/F. The discussion is at SF Signal and is worth reading.
The second part of the issue is, I think, both more abstract and more crucial (in my opinion): the field has long since radically shifted its focus away from that boy's own pulp mode; with the New Wave, the feminist SF of the 70s, and everything since, the field has broadened its aims and its target audience to the point where it's really a different creature entirely. I'm not even sure it's strictly speaking a genre anymore. We partly acknowledge that with the term speculative fiction but I don't think we've gone far enough in recognising the changes; we're still tied to that brand image. Personally, I'd rebrand the whole fucking field -- market it as indie fiction, critique it as strange fiction, try to totally reboot it in people's imaginations so that we think of it in a way that's not coloured by that male-orientation. This is, I freely admit, not even remotely practical, and beyond the scope of the specific problem of gender imbalance, but there's a part of me that thinks -- to use a programming metaphor -- we need to utterly redefine the system architecture rather than just tinker about with patches and fixes on the legacy code.

This goes back to the question of what is happening in SF? As an old timer, I am reluctant to give up SF as a category. But the younger writers may be right that the category has sort of exploded itself.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

July 3

It's full summer now, though still pretty cool. The temp was in the mid 70s as I passed Minnesota Public radio.

Lots of flowers are blooming along the freeway, the same colors as before -- yellow, white and pink. The kinds of flowers are changing. I can tell that by the shape, though the flowers zip by so quickly I can't identify most. The grasses are producing their seeds, and that's giving a brown tinge to the freeway slopes.

Everything looks lush.

I copied a story for my prose workshop today. It's the one set in Iceland, about trolls and the big hydroelectric project in the East Fjords. Done except for revisions.

The Brer Rabbit story is 20 pages long. I've gotten him to Detroit circa 1920. Now I have to read Indignant Heart , before I continue. Fortunately, it just came in the mail. I can take it with me on our trip to Sioux Falls.

Patrick wants to go there to buy pipe tobacco without the Minnesota tobacco tax. There are a couple of stores in downtown Sioux Falls I like, and the falls are pretty: water rushing over and around big pink chunks of Sioux quartzite.

Maybe we can stop in the Blue Mounds State Park on the way or way back or swing a little north and go to Pipestone National Monument. Blue Mounds has bison in a small restored prairie. I'm always happy to see bison, and Pipestone is a sacred place to Native Peoples.