Sunday, October 26, 2008

Crex Meadows

Patrick and I drove to Crex Meadows yesterday. It was a bright, mostly cloudless, mild day, the autumn colors mostly over except for the oaks, which are currently deep red, orange, dull gold, many shades of brown. Some birches and cottonwoods still have bright yellow leaves.

There are 8,000 sandhill cranes at Crex Meadows right now, and three whooping cranes have been seen hanging out with them.

We did not see the whooping cranes, nor did we see 8,000 sandhills all in one place, as I had sort of expected. Instead, we saw three sandhills here, four there, a half dozen elsewhere, more flying in small groups in the distance.

There were also trumpeter swans -- a group of twenty, which is more trumpeter swans than I have seen in one place. It's a bird I like a lot. And we saw five or six bald eagles and a zillion coots, bouncing on the windy water and splashing at they dove and popped back up. There were a fair number of ducks, which I could not identify, given the light and their distance from the road. My best bet would be ring-necked ducks, which should be abundant in the preserve at the moment. They were definitely not mallards, and I don't think they were teal. What is the appeal of bird watching?

Per Science News, a new carnivorous dinosaur has been discovered in Argentina. Like birds, and unlike mammals or -- I assume -- reptiles, the fossil has multiple air sacks in its torso, which functioned like bellows, pushing air through a fixed lung. The dinosaur in question was 30 feet long and weighed as much as an Indian elephant. Why did it have an avian breathing system?

This is one question. The other is, how many other kinds of dinosaurs breathed like birds?

The more we find out about dinosaurs, the more like birds they are. This is hardly surprising, since birds are descended from dinosaurs.

It makes me like birds a lot, since I have always loved dinosaurs.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

700 Billion Dollars

Per the Bernie Sanders post below, a billion dollars spent on infrastructure creates 47,000 jobs. If the $700 billion we just appropriated for Wall Street could be spent on bridges, highways, sewer lines, housing for homeless people, new schools and so on, it would create 32.9 million new jobs. At present, 154.7 million Americans are working. That is a lot of extra jobs.

Think of all the construction workers and teachers and child care workers and engineers we could hire with 700 billion dollars. Think of the country we could build.

And now this from The Guardian on October 18:

Financial workers at Wall Street's top banks are to receive pay deals worth more than $70bn (£40bn), a substantial proportion of which is expected to be paid in discretionary bonuses, for their work so far this year - despite plunging the global financial system into its worst crisis since the 1929 stock market crash, the Guardian has learned.

Staff at six banks including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup are in line to pick up the payouts despite being the beneficiaries of a $700bn bail-out from the US government that has already prompted criticism. The government's cash has been poured in on the condition that excessive executive pay would be curbed.

I think I will say no more.

October Haiku

Light shines through faded leaves.
In the middle of the park
the homeless sun themselves.

One of the members of my poetry group writes a lot of haiku, and I have been influenced by him to try my hand.

What I like about haiku is the chance to set down -- very briefly -- a moment in time, an experience.

What Is To Be Done - I Forget the Number

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont:

We should make a major financial commitment to improving our roads and bridges. We must develop energy-efficient rail lines for both freight and high-speed passenger service and promote public transportation. We need to bring our water and sewer systems into the 21st century. In terms of job creation, every billion dollars invested in the physical infrastructure creates 47,000 new jobs.

We should make a major financial commitment to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. With a major investment, we could stop importing foreign oil in 10 years, produce all of our electricity from sustainable energy within a decade, and substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions. We can make the United States the world leader in the construction of solar, wind, bio-fuel and geothermal facilities for energy production, as well as creating a significant number of jobs by making our homes, offices, schools and factories far more energy efficient.

We should make a major financial commitment to education. We must end the disgrace of millions of children under five attending totally inadequate child-care facilities while millions of other families are unable to afford a college education. We must invest in new classrooms, new computers, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. That would not only create jobs, but relieve some of the burden on the regressive property tax.

In these harsh economic times we should extend unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 39 weeks, so that more than 1 million Americans do not run out of their benefits by the end of this year. We should increase eligibility for food stamps and other nutrition programs to assist the hard-pressed middle class as well as the poor. We should substantially increase funding for the highly-effective community health center program so that, at a minimum, all Americans have access to affordable primary health care, dental care, and low-cost prescription drugs.

Finally, with cities and states facing deep deficits and cutting basic services, we must make a major, immediate financial commitment to states and municipalities. Their crisis will only grow worse as homes are foreclosed, as income and capital gains decline, as fees on sales of homes and motor vehicles diminish. For too long, unfunded federal mandates have drained the budgets of states and communities. The strength and vitality of America's communities must be restored.

Monday, October 20, 2008

An Early October Poem

Thinking about the big questions --
politics and history --
I don’t see the blue sky
filmed with high clouds,
how light gleams softly
off the gold charioteer on the Capitol,
leaves yellowing, the world
turning toward fall.

What I'm Doing

I just got done exercising at the Y. I'm going over to downtown Minneapolis to buy Terry Pratchett's new book Nation. (St. Paul has almost no shopping downtown, including no bookstore.) Then maybe do some revising of my long novella and enjoy the bright fall day.

Last night I watched Paprika, a wonderful anime fantasy or maybe science fiction movie, on DVD.

I have a long, long to-do list. But fall comes only once a year, and the colors are already fading.

Maybe today, just for today, I will pay no attention to politics and instead pay attention to the weather and the falling leaves.

I checked websites yesterday. The fall colors are peaking south of here. Maybe Patrick and I can take a drive next weekend along the Mississippi. There are thousands of sandhill cranes at Crex Meadows preserve east and a little north of the Cities, which also makes for a tempting day trip. People have been reporting a few whooping cranes mixed in the with sandhills.

The tundra swans have not yet arrived in Alma, Wisconsin. They are due in another couple of weeks. So, it will be either fall colors or cranes next weekend.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sheep Bubble

I think I've found it. It was a boom in the price of sheep during World War One, which ended abruptly and left many farmers in debt. The Icelandic novelist Haldor Laxness wrote about it in his great novel Independent People.

I found this quote from Laxness on the blog Debtonation, run by the economist Ann Pettifor. I don't know her work, but she sounds very interesting.

The hero, if you can call him that, of the novel is Bjartur, a farmer who struggles to survive and be independent, as he understands the word.

People take more upon themselves than they can manage if they aim higher. True, it had been quite usual in the old days for the people to owe the merchant money and to be refused credit when the debt had grown too big. It had likewise been nothing uncommon for people thus denied sustenance to die of starvation, but such a fate, surely, was infinitely preferable to being ensnared by the banks, as people are nowadays, for at least they had lived like independent men, at least they had died of hunger like free people.

The mistake lies in assuming that the helping hand proferred by the banks is as reliable as it is seductive, when in actual fact the banks may be relied upon only by those few exceptionally great men who can afford to owe anything from one to five millions. So about the same time as Bjartur sold his better cow to raise money for wages and paid a thousand crowns off the loan and six hundred as interest by making inroads on his stock of sheep, the Fell King sold his farm to a speculator for the amount of the mortgages with which it was encumbered and fled to live in a hovel in the town, yes, and thought himself lucky to escape.

The National Bank had passed into Ingolfur Arnarson’s control and had become a Statebank on the basis of a huge government loan from England; remissions of and concessions on loans were out of the question now, unless it was a matter of millions, and the farmers’ produce had fallen disastrously in price.

Yes, the bottom fell out of everything, the autumn that Bjartur’s house was one year old.

More on Iceland

There is an article on Iceland in today's Guardian. The Icelanders interviewed are still being philosophic, saying "We've been poor before" and "We know how to work hard" and "We don't have to worry about eating; we have plenty of fish."

My favorite quote went more or less like this:

"We've been through hard times before, when the sheep bubble collapsed..."

I suppose I need to Google "sheep bubble" and get the details...

What Is To Be Done 4

Paul Krugman on how to deal with the current recession, which he says will be nasty, brutish and long:

On the other hand, there’s a lot the federal government can do.... It can provide extended benefits to the unemployed, which will both help distressed families cope and put money in the hands of people likely to spend it. It can provide emergency aid to state and local governments, so that they aren’t forced into steep spending cuts that both degrade public services and destroy jobs. It can buy up mortgages (but not at face value, as John McCain has proposed) and restructure the terms to help families stay in their homes.

And this is also a good time to engage in some serious infrastructure spending, which the country badly needs in any case. The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge..., the slump is over and the stimulus isn’t needed. Well,... the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let’s get those projects rolling.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Icelandic Banker's Song

After reading the Wall Street Journal article mentioned in the previous post, I wrote a poem. I still have to check the spelling and maybe do some more tinkering, but I like it.

A banker’s life is the finest life
That’s known to man or God.
You sit inside, and you don’t get wet
Hauling up haddock and cod.

You stay inside, and you don’t get wet,
And you hardly ever drown;
Though you might be seen with brennivin
Wandering through the town.

But I’d rather drown in brennivin
Than sink in the salty brine,
And handle lines of credit
Instead of a fishing line.

When I was young I went to sea,
And I thought I was a fool
To spend my day in the icy spray
Instead of in business school.

So I flew away to the USA
And got myself a degree
And settled down at the Landisbank,
And scorned the rolling sea.

You’d never think that a bank could sink
Like a fishing boat in a storm,
And the crew go down to an ugly fate
Under the churning foam.

Nothing is sure, the High One said
A thousand years ago.
Even wearing a business suit,
You can find yourself below

Where the fishes swim in the salty dim,
And the old seafarers sleep;
And so I curse, though it could be worse.
I could be herding sheep.

A banker’s life is the finest life
That’s known to man or God.
I’m going back to Isafjord
To haul up haddock and cod.

Note 1: I apologize to Icelandic sheep farmers for stanza eight. I like Icelandic sheep. Look at my profile photo. But I needed a rhyme for sleep; and there must be Icelanders who'd rather fish.

Note 2: I can find Landisbank on the Internet, but only in non-Icelandic posts. It seems to be a varient of Landsbanki, the name of one of the three banks that went down. I'm keeping it for the time being, because Landsbanki does not scan as well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Iceland Again 2

I found an October 10 article on Iceland from the Wall Street Journal. The Icelanders interviewed sounded pretty philosophic.

They were saying things like, "Well, time to get back to cod fishing," or "We had a hell of a party. No wonder we have a hangover now."

Maybe they are screaming and bashing their heads against walls in private.

I need to get up there and spend some foreign currency. The websites for Icelandic bookstores were simply not as good as the stores themselves. I couldn't even find the children's fairy tale my father used to read to me, translating from Icelandic as he went. It's still popular and available in several languages. I bought a copy when I was in Iceland four years ago.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Is To Be Done 3

I got up this morning and went on line and discovered that the government is buying into nine big American banks, the stock market has bounced up and the economists I read are now mostly happy with the bail out.

The crisis may be over, and world economic system may once again have risen like a phoenix from its ashes or the undead from the grave.

So, am I a fool to worry?

I guess I will wait to call myself a fool till Nouriel Roubini says he is happy. Roubini (known as Dr. Doom) has a column in Forbes, which can be read online; and he has a deep distrust of the current economy.

The last essay by him I read said the underlying problems -- the collapse of real estate prices and a slowing economy -- remain.

According to him, we have two choices: a two-year recession or a ten-year depression.

He wants to pump a lot of money into places where it will help working Americans: increase unemployment benefits and create a public works program devoted to rebuilding the country's infrastructure and to green energy. Give block grants to state and local governments, so they too can work on the infrastructure and create jobs. Set up a federal program to help people with their mortgages and keep them in their homes. We really do not want all those empty houses.

It sounds good to me.

Of course, conservatives are already saying we cannot afford to help ordinary people, after spending so much to help the banks.

According to Roubini, if we do not deal with the underlying problems and get money to the working economy below the financial bubble or froth, we are looking at a ten-year-long depression.

On the plus side, there was a quite amazing full moon in the sky when I got up this morning; and the sky was bright, cloudless blue as I rode to work. The foliage is golden, with touches of red -- the maples and the sumac.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Iceland Again

I've been thinking of a quick flight to Iceland to show my support by spending some money there. But Icelandair isn't flying from the Twin Cities right now, and a quick flight becomes a lot longer when you have to change planes in Orlando or Amsterdam.


There is a deal right now for $550 -- round trip plus three nights in a posh hotel in lovely and affordable (at the moment) downtown Reykjavik. But the flights go from Boston or New York.

It sounds nice: a visit to the National Musuem, a scenic tour of local landmarks in the four hours of daylight they have in November, some lovely cod dinners and then a trip to the local bookstores to buy books on Iceland. I can spend a lot of money in an Icelandic bookstore. I certainly did on my last visit. Maybe I can go online and shop...

Science Fiction

It occurs to me that I haven't talked about science fiction much.

I'm revising a long (130 page) novella, which I am going to submit to Aqueduct Press's chapbook series. It's a Lydia Duluth story that got out of hand and is too long for most markets.

I need to revise two other short stories, which are ordinary lengths. One of them is probably out of date now, since it's set in Iceland before this week's economic collapse.

Then I will be done with everything short except the Brer Rabbit story and can finally get back to work on the sequel to Ring of Swords.

I have averaged a little over 100 pages of publishable work a year during my writing career, whcih goes back to 1972 or 73. The fastest I ever wrote anything was Ring, which took 18 months. The slowest was A Woman of the Iron People. I got stalled in the middle. It took 13 years to complete.

This is too little for a successful science fiction writing career.

Could I have written more? I think so -- if I'd had more free time, and if I had been more driven or more disciplined. Though I wonder how much I have to say. I try to never write the same story twice. If I get into a story, and it seems overly familiar or seems to lack substance, I quit.


The economic news from Iceland is really, really bad; and I am more distressed by it than what's happening here. The US is a very big, very rich country with a lot of natural resources and a huge internal market. If we decide to fix our problems, we can. For that matter, we probably have the resources to fix the world's problems, though it isn't likely we will.

Iceland is a lot more vulnerable.

The Icelanders probably should have stuck to cod and sheep and geothermal power. I was out in an Icelandic fishing boat once. Those cod are a very reliable looking fish.

Finance is a mug's game.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Ralph Stanley Endorses Orbama!

I read this yesterday. There's a radio spot running in Virginia which has Ralph Stanley saying that Obama "is a good man" who will "put money in our pockets."

Ralph Stanley is a giant of bluegrass music. If you saw Brother, Where Art Thou, you heard him sing "Oh Death" in the Klan Scene. He is a legend, second only to the late Bill Monroe.

And he is as down home as you can get, pure quill southern and mountain. I consider this a huge endorsement, though it's hard to explain to people who don't know southern music.

I was talking to Patrick last night about what could top this. Patrick said, "Bill Monroe rising from the dead, or God descending on a cloud."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

What Is To Be Done 2

Howard Zinn in Common Dreams:

The rationale for taking $700bn from the taxpayers to subsidise huge financial institutions is that somehow that wealth will trickle down to the people who need it. This has never worked.

The alternative is simple and powerful. Take that huge sum of money and give it directly to the people who need it. Let the government declare a moratorium on foreclosures and give aid to homeowners to help them pay off their mortgages. Create a federal jobs programme to guarantee work to people who want and need jobs and for whom "the free market" has not come through.

We have a historic and successful precedent. Roosevelt's New Deal put millions of people to work, rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, and, defying the cries of "socialism", established social security. That can be carried further, with "health security" - free health care - for all.

All that will take more than $700bn. But the money is there. In the $600bn for the military budget, once we decide we will no longer be a war-making nation. And in the swollen bank accounts of the super-rich, by taxing vigorously both their income and their wealth.

What Is To Be Done

Steve Fraser in TomDispatch:

As it did in 1929, the free market has failed beyond tolerance. Overwhelming popular sentiment (which each new poll registers with added vehemence) may, sooner or later, bring not only a full recognition of just how wrong-headed the country has been for how long, but how much in need it is of fresh institutions. New forms of public authority, closely overseen by the mechanisms of democracy rather than turned over to some autocrat on leave from his day job as an investment banker, might have a chance of doing what was once unthinkable: de-sanctifying private property and compelling it to perform in the general interest when its private misuse has placed us all in peril. The New Deal ventured in that direction. We need to venture further.

Here's a first principle: Refuse to reward those institutions that have done us no service. If that entails their liquidation (to borrow a word from Andrew Mellon), so be it. The world won't end, only the world as they have known it.

Let's use what's left of their grossly inflated assets to re-start the engines of real economic development. Compel investment in the re-industrialization of the country along lines that reward labor not parasitism, end the reign of the sweatshop, rescue the country from environmental suicide, revise the division of wealth and income so we can all live free of the indecencies of lavish piggery, and insist that social responsibility takes precedence over the bottom line.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


The foliage along the Mississippi is getting serious about turning. The air is finally crisp. I was actually cold yesterday, wearing a t-shirt. Today I put on a long sleeved turtleneck, Halloween orange, which seems to be an in color this year.

I have read lots of economics blogs on the Internet, and I can't say what my opinion of the bailout is.

Guys I respect, such as James Galbraith, say it's not a good bill, but something has to be pretty quickly, so we ought to go with it.

Other guys I respect, such as Dean Baker, say it won't work and is simply tossing money to the people who created the problem.

Maybe I should concentrate on the foliage and taking day trips south along the Mississippi to look at migrating birds.

Or making soups. I just bought a stock pot. This is good weather for turning chicken carcasses into broth.