Monday, February 20, 2012


A nice barred spiral galaxy to stsrt the day...
Many spiral galaxies have bars across their centers. Even our own Milky Way Galaxy is thought to have a modest central bar. Prominently barred spiral galaxy NGC 1073, pictured above, was captured in spectacular detail in this recently released image taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. Visible are dark filamentary dust lanes, young clusters of bright blue stars, red emission nebulas of glowing hydrogen gas, a long bright bar of stars across the center, and a bright active nucleus that likely houses a supermassive black hole. Light takes about 55 million years to reach us from NGC 1073, which spans about 80,000 light years across. NGC 1073 can be seen with a moderately-sized telescope toward the constellation of the Sea Monster (Cetus), Fortuitously, the above image not only caught the X-ray bright star system IXO 5, visible on the upper left and likely internal to the barred spiral, but three quasars far in the distance.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Short stories

I posted this on facebook:
I have been writing novelettes for a long time and am now trying to pull my length down to 7,500 words. It is really hard. The story I just finished seems incomplete to me. My experience of short stories -- this is a huge generalization -- is they tend to be folk tales or vignettes or gimmick stories, O'Henry stories. Boy, is that a huge generalization. I will reframe it, I can write short stories that are vignettes, gimmick stories or folk tales. To write a story that feels rich, I have to go longer. But many SF writers can write wonderful, rich short stories.

I'm being unfair when I talk about "gimmick" stories. What I mean is stories that focus on an idea or the plot. SF writers and readers love neat idea stories, as do I, though I don't usually write them, and our pulp history makes stories that rely on action and plot appealing.

It's really hard to get an idea, a plot and the qualities of a vignette -- mood, detail and character -- into a story that is less than 7,500 words. Something has to go. In some stories, it's character or detail, which leaves room for the idea or the plot.

In the story I just finished, I was tempted to put a plot twist in -- a dark, ironic ending -- because it would make for a tighter story. But Patrick did not like the idea, nor did I, after thinking. The need to close the story at 7,500 words was pushing me toward a kind of O'Henry ending. Instead, the story ends indeterminately, as does much of life. If I'd had more time and more words, I think I could have come up with a better ending.

I think I'm going to have to go back to the story and make the ending clear by having the narrator say -- in so many words -- "I don't know what this means. Sometimes things just happen."

I like writing stories that are 12,000 words or thereabouts. They have room for some of the richness of a novel, but they end before I and the reader get bored.

However, I have sent out six stories in the past year or so. The two that have sold are at or under 7,500 words. The other four -- all novelettes -- sit at magazines. I keep imaging the editors saying, "I like it, but it's so damn long."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Real Estate Law and Icelandic Sagas

I posted this on the wonderful economics and finance blog Naked Capital, in response to articles arguing that -- due to the criminal behavior of the large American banks -- the title to private and commercial real estate is now so clouded that no one can be sure if they actually own what they think they own, and also to an article on the MF Global bankruptcy. MF Global was an investment firm that stole money from customers' accounts and (apparently) put the money in a large New York bank, from which (it appears) the customers cannot recover their money. This was not money that had been invested. This was money in cash accounts, like money in bank accounts.

If I am understanding the various links correctly, property law no longer functions in the US, at least in re real estate, and investors can no longer be sure they have an right to the money they have put at investment firms. I guess my next question is, who owns the money in my bank accounts?

There is a wonderful line in the Icelandic Njals saga, spoken by the saga hero Njal: “With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste.”

The verb translated as “built up” means settle, inhabit or occupy and also means to let money out at interest. So the line could be a motto for real estate law or maybe for the Occupy movement. Though in the case of Occupy, a couple of words should be reversed, “With Occupation shall the land be made lawful.” We hope.

For what it’s worth, rich and powerful men broke apart the medieval Icelandic legal and government system, pushing the country into civil war. The Icelandic Republic collapsed and the Norwegian Crown took over. The Icelanders spent the next 600 years as a colony in poverty so severe that it almost extinguished the Icelandic people.

Njals saga was written in the 13th century, when the Republic ended amid civil war. The Icelanders knew what had destroyed their country. The tragedy of the Njals saga, considered to be the greatest of the sagas, was the breakdown on law.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


On the other hand, I like the Ring Cycle. I sat through six plus hours of Gotterdammerung today -- from the Met via HD broadcast -- and cried when Siegfried died.

What is interesting -- and deeply disturbing -- about the Ring Cycle is how much of it is about vulnerable women. Siegfried's mother Sieglinde was kidnapped and forced into marriage by the horrible Hunding. She is rescued by Siegmund, who is -- as they later find out -- her twin brother. They fall in love. It looks as if we might have a happy ending.

But Frikke, the goddess of marriage and queen of the gods, believes that Siegmund must be punished in order to maintain the sanctity of marriage and the family. According to Frikke the forced marriage between Hunding and Sieglinde is sacred, while the love between the twins is adultery. Granted the twins' love is incestuous, but compared to the awful marriage of Hunding and Sieglinde, it is touching and sweet.

Wotan promises to punish Siegmund, who is -- by the way -- Wotan's son. He intervenes in a fight between Siegmund and Hunding, making sure that Hunding wins and Siegmund dies.

Sieglinde flees and gives birth to Siegfried nine months later, dying in childbirth, so Siegfried never knows either parent. This is in opera # 2, Die Walkure.

Through Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, we watch the degradation of Brunnhilde, a Valkyrie who defies her father Wotan by trying to help Siegmund and Sieglinde. As punishment, Wotan makes Brunnhilde mortal and casts her into an enchanted sleep. In this sleep, she will be prey to any passing man. She begs her father to surround her with a ring of fire, so only a hero can reach her and "win" her.

At the end of Siegfried, the young, clueless, arrogant hero passes through the fire and wakes Brunnhilde -- freeing her as his father had freed his mother. Siegfried and Brunnhilde fall in love, and this opera has a happy ending.

Then we get to Gotterdammerung. Returning to the world of ordinary people, Siegfried falls into the plots of an ambitious family. He is given a potion, which makes him forget Brunnhilde; and -- under the influence of the potion -- he helps another man "win" Brunnhilde, who is still on her mountain, surrounded by her ring of fire. Disguised as the other man, Siegfried goes back through the fire and grabs Brunnhilde, taking her from safety into a forced marriage: the same fate as his mother had experienced.

Brunnhilde is furious when she realizes that Siegfried has given her to his new buddy Gunther as a casual gift -- "Here, pal, have a woman I don't need." And she gets her revenge by helping to get Siegfried killed.

And then she kills herself by burning on his funeral pyre.

But think of a woman who has been a kind of warrior goddess, the favored daughter of the All Father, and then becomes an utterly vulnerable mortal in a society where women are property, kidnapped and forced into marriage and handed around as gifts. A creepy story.

But Brunnhilde is far more impressive than Charlotte, and Wagner's sympathies seem to be with the two pairs of lovers. You might call it a story of love vs. property. The lovers don't win. But neither do the owners. In the end, everyone dies, even the gods.


Well, I saw Werther. The music is fine, but the opera suffers from a problem.

There are three main characters:

Werther, a young man with a mood disorder, who zings back and forth between enthusiasm and deep depression. He falls in love at first sight with Charlotte, who is kind and sweet and does what she is told.

Charlotte is engaged -- and then married -- to Albert, who is solid, respectable, jealous and vindictive.

Charlotte sends Werther away, but tells him to came back at Christmas, which suggests she is a little indecisive. While he is gone, he writes her passionate letters, which she reads and keeps, although she is now married to Albert.

Werther comes back at Christmas. Albert becomes suspicious. Charlotte sends Werther away a second time. Werther then sends a letter to Albert, asking to borrow his dueling pistols.

Albert agrees and insists that Charlotte be the one to give the guns to Werther's messenger. (This is how we know he's vindictive.) Charlotte does as she is told, even though she suspects Werther is suicidal.

She married Albert because her dying mother told her to. She cared for all her little brothers and sisters, because it was expected of her. She handed the guns over, because Albert told her to. When she finds Werther after he has shot himself, she wants to go for help, but he tells her not to, and she doesn't.

She does what she's told to do. However, in act four, when Wether is bleeding all over everything, she decides she really does love him; and then he dies.

It is hard to like any of these people.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A New Approach

I am also thinking of making my blog more human and personal.


It's 10:30 am, and I need to shower and get ready for the Minnesota Opera. Today it's Werther, from the novel by Goethe. According to one of my friends, the tenor shoots himself in the head at the end of the first act and spends the entire second act dying and singing.

Student Loans

I got another comment from Foxessa, and I am reprinting part of it here, because it is awesome. This is about the cost of a college education:
Things changed very rapidly, beginning with allowing the same private institutions that brought you the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and all the rest of our current economic catastrophes to get into the student loan game while the federal money was used to secure them.

Even before that student loan money was excepted from the bankruptcy rulings, i.e. even if a person filed for personal bankruptcy, the loans would not be forgiven with other debt.

At the same time, because of the underwriting with federal money all those private lending institutions such as banks and others, tuition and other costs went sky high. Higher education became as much a financial bubble as the sub-prime mortgage ponzi scheme was.

So banks (and federal policy) have pushed the cost of education up, the way they pushed up the price of housing.

An awesome analysis, to which I add...

American industry -- and especially American governments -- are doing far less fixed capital investment than in the 20th century. (Most of the money governments spend on fixed assets -- highways and so on -- ends in the hands of private corporations, which do the actual work.)

This reduces the need for money capital, which means banks are less able to profit from traditional loans to industry. In addition, as corporations have increased in size, they are more and more able to pay for change and improvement (if any) with their own funds. Or so I have read.

So Wall Street roams like a pack of predatory dinosaurs, looking to make new kinds of loans and profit from them; and because Wall Street now controls the US government, it can shape laws in whatever way is most profitable.

In recent years, the loans have been to consumers: home loans, credit card loans, student loans. We are all feeding this useless section of the economy.

A New Approach

I've been thinking about blogging, and how I could make my blog more interesting.

I can't write about the business aspects of writing, because -- after 40 years of being published -- I don't understand writing as a business. In addition, publishing is changing rapidly, due to consolidation of the industry in the 1980s and 90s, and then due to technological changes, which make it easy to start a small press or to self-publish and which threaten traditional publishers and their profits, though we don't know how much yet. What I may have thought I knew 30 years ago is irrelevant. What I think I know now changes from day to day, mostly in response to other writers' opinions and stories.

I could write about writing itself, though I'm not sure what to say. My usual advice is just do it. Write every day. When I used to collect advice from science fiction pros, they seemed to have one of two systems: set a word count of 1,000 or so and write this much every day, or set a time period every day during which you have to sit at the computer and write. You do nothing else during this period. If words don't come, then you spend three hours staring at a blank screen or typing 'xxxxxx' or 'help' over and over.

This is not how I write. I knew 40 years ago that I wasn't ever likely to make a living from writing. Instead, I worked a long series of day jobs, mostly as as an office clerk or warehouse worker, and wrote in my spare time. This meant my writing was always (in a sense) secondary -- a hobby, fit into the corners of my life. Even though it was far more important to me than any of my jobs.

Now I can write full time, but my habits are still erratic. I had a productive day this past Wednesday. I finished (I thought) the current short story and began work revising a long-long-long overdue novel. Then I hit a wall and did no work for three days, except to think about the short story. No, the ending still isn't where I want it to be.

When I began to write publishable work, I wrote fiction the way I had always written poetry: a line would come and then another. I would feel my way through the poem or story, not knowing what was coming next. Many stories stopped after a few lines or wandered on, going nowhere, until I gave up. Over time, I have moved toward having an idea or maybe even a plot when I begin a story. But I still do a lot of feeling my way.

Decades ago, I thought I was tapping into my unconscious, and the feeling-my-way process enabled me to get to material that was powerful, somehow 'alive.'

I am less sure today what's going on when I write. I'm pretty sure it's easier to write, if you know where you're going. Plotting ahead really is a help. Though sometimes you end in really interesting places if you don't know where you are going.

My current story began as a Lovecraft parody: a prissy Boston lawyer discovers an elder god emerging from the bog at his family home. What do you do with a lesser god, who doesn't know why he (or it) has risen? As I've written the story, it has turned out to be also about the lawyer's cousin, a painter in St. Paul, and her struggles with her art. What is hanging the story up now is a description of the art the painter is doing at the end of the story. I don't have it right yet.

This came from feeling my way. The story is now about inheritance, art, coming to terms with one's family, global warming and (just a little bit) the Cthulu Mythos.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Why I Like What I like 2

There was a famous friendship and then disagreement between Henry James and H.G. Wells at the end of the 19th century. Maybe that is point when English language literature (as I know it) split into high art and popular art. Not that Wells and James were responsible. But they could see the emerging differences.

This is what Wells said about the late work of James:
He splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing. He presses the passing colloquialism into his service. His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness

I have read a little late James and don't like it. But Wells is being unfair.

I've read a fair amount of Wells' science fiction, which is ripping tales with big ideas in a style that is easily accessible.

James, I think, was trying for psychological and formal complexity, to capture what went on in the minds of the people he knew, who were educated and well to do.

Wells wanted to talk about biology, evolution, class struggle, imperialism and the future.

What I suspect was happening was -- printing had become cheap enough and literacy widespread enough, that different audiences for literature were developing, along with different kinds of writers.

This was not utterly new. Popular printing had existed much earlier. Broadside ballads appeared in the 16th century in England and reached their peak in the 17th century, before being replaced in the 18th century (per Wikipedia) by chapbooks, books and newspapers. So what we have is a gradual expansion of printing and reading century after century.

And maybe if I had read broadside ballads and dime novels in college, instead of Dickens, I would have a better idea of what led to 20th century pulp fiction and comic books.

In any case, my bias is toward popular fiction and popular culture, especially science fiction (and fantasy). I like the brightness and flatness, the energy, broad action and big ideas. For most part, science fiction is not about nuance and subtle change. Nor is it primarily about individuals and what goes on inside their heads. Rather, it's about entire societies and how they succeed or fail.

I know the real world fairly well. If I want to know more about it, I can walk out the door or read nonfiction. What I really want to do is examine basic premises and think about what might be possible, if only we had the ability to see.
As Antonio Gramsci wrote 70+ years ago:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
We are still in this same place, caught between a past that no longer works and a future we cannot see, with morbid symptoms all around us.

Fantastic fiction -- fantasy and science fiction -- is useful here, because it enables us to see things in new ways. Maybe it will help us find a road that leads forward.


I got another comment from Foxessa, which is worth reading. (See below. The comment on the most recent MFAs post.) I think the conclusion is, I don't know what I'm talking about re the merits of getting an MFA; and I suffer from prejudice in this area.

Which is useful to know.

Foxessa talks about people who go into the academic world fairly late, with experiences already acquired and work already done. I've known people like this. The two that come immediately to mind for me are Harley Shaiken and Marty Glaberman. When I knew Harley, he was a steel worker. When I knew Marty, he was an unemployed auto worker. Harley became a Professor of Social and Cultural Studies, having only a BA in economics from Wayne State University (a very good blue collar school in Detroit). Marty ended as a professor at Wayne State, I think in Labor History. If I remember correctly, Marty went back to school and got a PhD.

These were people who brought considerable life experience to the academic world.

Foxessa would have to write about how difficult it is to make this transition today. Harley and Marty made it in the aftermath of the 1960s.

I am probably justifying my own life. I quit graduate school to find out what the rest of the world was like, and I never went back. When I have tried teaching writing, I have been uncomfortable and bad. So that route was never really open to me. Instead, I ended up making a living doing accounting, which I like and am fairly good at.

At this point in my life, in my late 60s in a godawful economy that does not look to get better, I advise people to think about money and retirement. I lucked out in a lot of ways. It was easy to find jobs and make a living in the 1960s. I sailed through the 70s, 80s and 90s, always getting by.

Then I hit a wall in the current century. I'm still lucky. I hit the wall when I was old enough to retire, and I ended -- through no planning of my own -- with enough to retire on.

So maybe one has to do a cost-benefit evaluation. Is an MFA worth enough to justify going into debt?

Maybe, looking down the road, it is. But watch out for those programs that end you owing $100,000.