Saturday, April 21, 2007


Patrick and I drove down the Mississippi today. The river has a wide valley, carved by its glacial forerunner. The valley is edged by stone bluffs, overgrown with hardwood forest, and there are small towns along both sides. We took the Wisconsin side, as usual, and ran into the Flood Run, a huge annual trip made by local motorcyclists. At one point traffic came to a dead stop, and we turned off onto a side road, going away from the river, then parallel to it, then back over to it. We were traveling through little side valleys and then through rolling farm land.

We ended in Pepin, Wisconsin, which was full of bikes and bikers. But only a couple of the bikers came into the local art gallery we like so much. I had come down to get some of my earrings altered, since I now have pierced ears.

On the way back, we started talking -- I'm not sure why -- about ideas of heaven and hell. We both agreed that floating on a cloud and playing a harp didn't appeal. That idea of heaven must have come from people who did hard physical labor with no relief, except on Sunday when they sang in church. For old time farmers and workers, heaven must have been rest and music.

Anyway, we put together our idea of heaven. We should be in our bodies, but they should be strong and healthy and free of pain. We should be able to do the things we always enjoyed or dreamed of doing -- garden, make art, build houses. Everything should turn out well. Our art would be good art. Our gardens would flourish.(Remember, this is heaven.) There would be plumbers in heaven, maybe working with golden pipes, architects, carpenters, potters, gardeners, quilters. Everyone would be doing work they enjoyed doing. Everyone would get along. Patrick smokes a pipe. In heaven, no one should object. After all, no one is going to die of secondhand smoke. Everyone is already dead. And if people didn't like the smell of a pipe, they would smell it as something else -- freshly cut grass or lilacs in bloom.

People would have the kind of weather they liked. Some people would be walking around in a hot, humid cloud. Others would feel the crisp air of autumn.

If people liked hunting, they'd be able to do it and bring the birds home and cook them. Then, they'd put the bones outside, and a new bird would arise.

You'd get the chance to meet people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and Badshah Khan, all the people who have worked for peace. The angels would be simply walking around among us. God wouldn't be sitting on a throne. You'd be working in your garden and look up, and there he or she would be, leaning on your fence. "Those are really fine nasturtiums you have there."

What about hell? It would be similar, except the people that people in heaven wanted to avoid -- Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Ted Bundy, Dick Chaney -- would be there; and they would have no power and wealth and no possibility of getting any. No one would take them seriously, even the kind of people who -- in life -- were natural followers and suckers.

Maybe, in the end, they would change. Patrick thought they might become better people. I imagined them turning into animals or plants. Imagine feathers appearing all over Dick Chaney, till he finally becomes a red-tailed hawk.

Istvan Maszaros

The current issue of the Monthly Review has an essay by Istvan Meszaros titled "The Only Viable Economy." In it -- I'm not going to check the exact words -- he speaks slightingly of Social Democracy.

Actually, no, I am going to check the exact words. Here they are. Meszaros is arguing that the Social Democratics got their political and economic analysis from 19th century bourgeois thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, who saw the problems with capitalism, but thought they could be fixed.
...Social-democratic reformism at its inception took its inspiration from such naive, even if at first genuinely held, afterthoughts of liberal political economy. Thus,due to the internal logic of the adopted social premises, emanating from capital's standpoint and vested interests as the unchallengable controller of the reproductive metabolism, it could not be surprising in the least that social-democratic reformism ended its course of development the way in which it actually did: by transforming itself into "New Labor" (in Britain; and its equivalents in other countries) and by abandoning completely any concern with even the most limited reform of the established social order.

If you think this guy's style is a bit dense, you are right. Meszaros believes that capitalism is not ultimately fixable, due to "the dramatic onset and relentless deepening of the system's structural crisis." Therefore, attempts to reform it are in the end futile and reformist parties will end by degrading into New Labor.

This is the old left argument about reform vs. revolution, which has been going for over a century, but may be finally ending, as we enter into a century that looks to be full of astounding crises.

Capitalism has shown a remarkable ability to recover from crisis and is still with us 160 years after Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. Can it recover from the current ecological crisis? How does a system based on growth fare, when it reaches the end of its home planet's carrying capacity? We shall see. If it is not able to survive, what will replace it? A new and better society? Or merely a different society? Or ruin?

In the meantime, while Meszaros may be right about the degradation of the Social Democratic parties, we should not forget what western Europe has achieved, due to the left and the union movement: universal health care, a social safety net far better than that of the U.S., shorter work weeks, better vacations and benefits we can't even dream of. The Nordic states sound like pretty good places to live.

We should always remember what has been achieved, because it reminds us that struggle can have good results. But we should not be content with what has been achieved, and we should remember that reforms can always be pushed back. They must be defended, and the only way to keep them safe is to keep pushing for more.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Wheat Rust Alert

This is bad news. A new strain of wheat stem rust, wonderfully named Ug99, has emerged in Uganda and spread to Kenya, Egypt, Yeman and India. It is able to infect pretty much all the rust-resistant strains of wheat developed by the green revolution scientists.

Wheat is most important food crop in the world; and world food reserves are currently low, since food production is no longer keeping up with consumption. If all goes well, it will take five years or more to develop new strains of wheat resistant to Ug99 and distribute the seed.

In 1954, just before Norman Borlaug began work on rust-resistant wheat, a plague of stem rust destroyed 40% of the wheat crop in the US.

In recent years, industrial countries -- especially the US and UK --have refused to adequately fund the international agencies responsible for the green revolution, apparently believing that microorganisms cannot evolve. As a result, the agencies were slow to spot Ug99 and have not had the resources to respond quickly.

Per the New Scientist:
... For more than two decades donors have been cutting (open) funding in favor of only financing projects allied to their own interests. As wheat stem rust re-emerged in 1999, the main CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research) lab was entering a major funding crisis, and ended up sacking a quarter of its scientists. It has taken until now to beg enough money to fight the disease.

Every time I read something like this, I think "Reagan and Thatcher." I will live with the results of their greed, selfishness and stupidity for the rest of my life.

It is not a good idea to take apart human society. We really cannot survive as individuals or tiny, nuclear families.

Driving North in April

Yesterday we drove up to Two Harbors. a tiny port north of Duluth, and watched the Canadian Leader come in to the ore docks. There is still ice on the lake and mist above the ice, so the day was both sunny and hazy. There is snow along the shore, the remains of the big storm in March.

I grew up in Minneapolis when the city was dotted with grain elevators and spent six years in Detroit when the city was dotted with the beautiful car plants designed by the Albert Kahn firm. To me, wealth is grain elevators, tow boats pushing barges full of grain, lakers loaded with iron ore, freight trains, car plants, steel mills and factory towns.

Wal-Marts aren't wealth, nor are coffee shops or the Golden Arches. Nor is the home construction industry. Houses are a result of workers with money; and the money comes from factories and mines.

This is (I think) because I grew up in the long double shadow of the Depression and World War II. When the factories aren't producing, you are poor. When the factories are producing, you can win the war.

I realize the environmental downside to industrialism. If -- when -- we rebuild the US, it will have to be a sustainable nation.

But I love the lakers and well-made factories and grain elevators. Here is the Canadian Leader coming into Two Harbors.

The North Shore in April

The Ore Docks at Two Harbors

The Canadian Leader # 1

The Canadian Leader # 2

The Canadian Leader # 3

Me and Minicon

Lyda Morehouse told me she had read my Minicon report and gently suggested that maybe it was time for me to let go of my argument with the con committee, which is now 20 years old.

She is right.


It snowed all day on the 11th and through the night. In the morning a few flakes were still drifting down from the sunny, blue sky. I wrote a poem at the bus stop:
April 12:
there are pigeon tracks
in the fresh snow.

It's not a haiku, because the syllable count isn't right. It's a semi- or pseudo-haiku.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I went to Minicon this past weekend. I was only there Saturday, but I spent 13 hours.

I have been going for something like 30 years, and I know a lot of people who attend.

Minicon used to be a 2000 to 3000 member extravaganza, full of costumers, gamers, media fans, book fans, a huge dealers room, a masquerade, everything you want at a science fiction con. It contracted sharply a number of years ago. This was done deliberately, because the people running the con felt it had gotten too big. They were right, but I didn’t like the method they used for making the con smaller. They made it crystal clear that costumers and gamers and media fans were no longer welcome. Most of the younger people left; and the con has maybe 400 members now. The people who remain are – many of them -- aging, hard core SF fans of the fannish variety, more interested in fandom than SF. There are still attendees I like a lot, but others I like less well.

I got in a fan feud in the late 80s over Minicon. A group of us thought there should be better programming, and for a few years we managed to take control of programming. We also thought the con should be more open and welcoming. The people running the con wanted to keep it as it was. In the end, when they downsized it, they changed it radically.

I guess the feud was about control. The old fans wanted to keep control of the con, which they ran superbly, though they had very little interest in programming. For them the con wasn’t about content. It was about running a con. The new fans – us – wanted our say, especially about programming. In the end, the new fans lost the fight and left and founded three new conventions: Diversacon, MarsCon and ConVergence. The first and last names tell you our agenda. We wanted diversity, and we wanted to bring diversity together.

Anyway, I kept looking at people and thinking, why did I waste so much time being angry with so-and-so? Does fandom matter enough to have a fight over a con? Even if the question is being welcoming to gay fans and fans of color and using programming to talk about questions such as the environment and race and class? Am I too sercon? Is fandom just a way to goof off and have fun? Does science fiction matter?

I was so tired by the end of Saturday that I spent Sunday on the living room couch, reading C.J. Cherryh’s new novel.

P.S. Some good things happened at the con. After I get some distance,I will talk about them.

P.P.S. The people on the other side of the feud would probably have an entirely different version of what happened.

Snow in April

April 11 and it’s snowing. When I walked into the living room this morning, the roofs of the buildings across the park from me were white. I looked down, and the grass in the park was white. The snow is wet and sticking to the trees, outlining the branches and needles with white.

The temp is above freezing, so the snow isn’t staying on the streets and sidewalks. But riding to work, the weeds along the highway were coated and weighed down with snow. Snow is very forgiving. It covers the litter along the highway and the unraked lawns and makes shabby houses look quite wonderful.

As I write this, I remember the Jack London story, “To Build a Fire.” Snow and cold are not always forgiving. But in a city -- a northern city like the ones I live and work in – they are the way things are meant to be. There’s a sense of rightness when snow falls, even in April.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Copies of The Communist Manifesto in Print Worldwide

Well, I tried Googling the above and got nowhere. Though I did find a lot of fairly creepy conservative blogs and websites. These either said the Manifesto has been responsible for most of the evil in the world since it was published, which attributes huge power to a short document; or they said, "Communism is utterly irrelevant, trivial and gone. We don't need to think about it ever again."

More About ICFA

Geoff Ryman was the Guest of Honor at ICFA. He is very bright and interesting man, but he managed to irritate me at several points – not as a person; he seems to be a very nice person; but as a thinker. In his GoH speech, he mentioned that Freudianism and Marxism have come and gone, while SF, another product of the 19th century, remains.

Patrick’s comment was, “If he thinks Freudianism is gone, he hasn’t spent much time on the East Coast.”

What bothers me is the casual, in-passing dismissal.

Freudianism may be gone in most places, though not on upper Park Avenue. I am less sure about Marxism, a term which has a lot of meanings.

I would define it as referring to (a) the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels; (b) a group of theoretical schools, often in conflict; (c) a large number of political organizations, often in conflict; (d) an analytical tool usually put to use in the human sciences of history, economics, political science and sociology. One commenter on Max Speaks said Marxism is the moral center of the left. Without Marxism, he wrote, we have only decency; and decency is not enough

I ought to add the 20th century national states which claimed to be Marxist, though that claim was always in question.

If Ryman means the nation states – yes, he is right, they are mostly gone, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba remains and is a considerable force in Latin American politics.

What else is gone? Many of the traditional political organizations. This may not be a loss. The featured article in Wikipedia a few days ago was a history of the Trotskyist Fourth International. Reading that -- a horrible history of faction fights and splits into ever smaller groups, which then had their own faction fights and splits -- is like watching someone inflict the death of a thousand cuts on himself.

The idea of the vanguard party is gone. The power of the people cannot be delegated to anyone. They must act for themselves, in their own interests. Popular movements in the late 20th and early 21st century have affirmed this over and over.

What remains? The intellectual tradition; many fine scholars; the trade union movement in South Africa; the entire country of Cuba; the current revolution in Nepal; two communist parties in India; and many political movements which have been influenced by Marxism, though they do not always call themselves Marxist. I would include Europe’s Social Democratic parties, which come out of the Second International and have created the most successful societies on Earth. I would also include the Zapatistas in Mexico and many other popular movements in Latin America.

This last may be a stretch. But even if you say Social Democracy and the new popular movements owe nothing to Marxism, which sounds weird the moment I write it, the ideas of Marxism remain important for many people throughout the world. It’s even possible that more people on Earth read Marxist texts than read science fiction.

I don't know how I'd find a comparison of the number of the people who have read The Communist Manifesto vs. the number of people who read science fiction. Maybe I should hunt around on Google.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Science Fiction and Book Clubs

This is from an interview with a member of a St. Paul book club, which appeared in the Minnesota Women's Press:

Q: What book by a female author sparked a great discussion?

A. Two come to mind. Margaret Atwoods's Oryx and Crake sparked great discussion because it's speculative fiction, but we could see how science fiction had (the) potential for reality. It was scary and sobering to look at science as being ahead of morality and a world spinning quickly out of control.

The other book that spurred great discussion was The Giver by Lois Lowry. This book is also science fiction. The aspect that sparked discussion was there wasn't a clear-cut ending, it's up for interpretation. Every person can bring her own ideas of what really happened and whether the characters go on from there.

It's interesting that the two books that sparked serious discussion were SF. Can we learn anything from this?

Driving Downriver & Going to the Opera

Patrick and I drove south along the Mississippi yesterday. It was a cold, rainy day. We stopped at BNOX, an art gallery we like in Pepin, Wisconsin. I looked at earrings, since I have decided to get my ears pierced. We saw an adult bald eagle on the breakwater. Then we drove home.

Today, Sunday, I went to the opera with my friends Ruth and Margaret. We saw Lakme, a late 19th century French opera set in India -- very romantic and very oriental in a 19th century way. I decided I was going to ignore any cultural faux pas I might notice and concentrate on the music, which was lovely. The opera company helped by including background notes in the program which referenced Edward Said on Orientalism.

If you don't know who Edward Said is, Google him. I have found his writing interesting and useful.

Afterward, we went to our favorite Japanese restaurant.

The opera is about a young, naive woman who is destroyed by the conflicts of the men around her over culture and religion and womanhood. The topic is not entirely out of date.

March in North Carolina

It was 80 degrees last Monday. A couple of days later I was riding the bus. The driver was a woman. She was talking to a passenger she knew, another woman. Mostly they talked about family; but they also mentioned how fine the weather had been Monday.

The driver said, "It was just like March in North Carolina; and I know what I'm talking about; I go down there a lot."

We should not be having a North Carolina spring in Minnesota.

It's supposed to get cold again this week.