Monday, September 26, 2011


Part of Mars is defrosting. Around the South Pole of Mars, toward the end of every Martian summer, the warm weather causes a section of the vast carbon-dioxide ice cap to evaporate. Pits begin to appear and expand where the carbon dioxide dry ice sublimates directly into gas. These ice sheet pits may appear to be lined with gold, but the precise composition of the dust that highlights the pit walls actually remains unknown. The circular depressions toward the image center measure about 60 meters across. The HiRISE camera aboard the Mars-orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the above image in late July. In the next few months, as Mars continues its journey around the Sun, colder seasons will prevail, and the thin air will turn chilly enough not only to stop the defrosting but once again freeze out more layers of solid carbon dioxide.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunspot - NASA APOD

Here is one of the sharper views of the Sun ever taken. This stunning image shows remarkable details of a dark sunspot across the image bottom and numerous boiling granules which appear like kernels of corn across the top. Taken in 2002, the picture was made using the Swedish Solar Telescope operating on the Canary Island of La Palma. The high resolution image was achieved using sophisticated adaptive optics, digital image stacking, and other processing techniques to counter the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere. Currently a sunspot group is crossing the Sun that is so large it can be easily seen by the cautious observer even without magnification.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


The Farmers Market was gorgeous today -- tomatoes, green peppers, squash, apples, in broad trays and big baskets. I bought a baguette and some cucumbers. Amazing how happy this made me.

That led to thinking about Praxilla of Sicyon, a 5th century BC Greek poet. One of her poems became a proverb: "As silly as Praxilla's Adonis," because she had the dying Adonis speaking as follows of the world he was leaving:
Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon's face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.
The ancient Greeks thought it was silly to mourn cucumbers and pears and apples. Only a woman would write anything this stupid.

Anyway, I wrote a poem titled "Revolutionary Cucumber Poem," in imitation of Praxilla:
It's one thing to raise the people's flag,
blood-red, from the hand of a fallen comrade,
and another thing to take joy in cucumbers
at the downtown Farmer's Market.

But what is the flag
without the cucumbers
and the farmers who grew them
and the people buying produce?

And what are the cucumbers,
thick and green and crisp
in their market baskets,
without the flag?

I'm not sure I'm making sense. I'm asking what the great ideas and causes are in the absence of ordinary life, and what ordinary life is in the absence of the great ideas and causes.

I'm still tinkering with the last verse.

Cucumbers are precious; so are pears and apples. Eat them when they are ripe, but not overripe.

Radical History

Note on all that follows: the word "radical" comes from the Latin "radix" or "root." Radical change is change at the root. Radical history is a history of roots: the stuff at the bottom that anchors and feeds everything else.

Terry Bisson's talk was about the historical research he has done for various projects. Interesting stuff. He has led an interesting life, as well as writing truly wonderful science fiction. There was supposed to be a historian there, and he and Terry were supposed to talk about researching radical history. But the historian was at home, having done something terrible to his back. Anyway, I started thinking about history and science fiction. I'm going to make some huge generalizations, because I'm thinking out loud or maybe in electrons...

There are three fundamental lies told by traditional histories:

1) History is made by famous men, rather than by ordinary people.

2) The broad trends of history are smooth.

3) The broad trends of history are inevitable.

These are my thoughts in reply:

1) History to me is social change, and it is made by everyone. A lot of it is made by people changing their living habits, the tools they use, the crops they grow and how they grow those crops. According to the anthropologist Jack Weatherford, Russia and Prussia became great empires, because the potato was imported from the New World. It grows more reliably in northern climates than do grains. Before the potato, Russia and Prussia were subject to regular famines. After, they could feed their populations and their armies.

2) History tends to be taught in Ages, which are broadly described. This gives the illusion that history is smooth. Rome is followed by the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Modern Times. Dum-dum-dum-dum. In fact, history is full of small changes and local variation. By ignoring these, historians give the impression that ordinary people have almost no part in history. They emerge -- briefly -- in great popular struggles and revolutions, and then disappear. The great demonstrations in Egypt this year, which brought down the government, were preceded by years of labor struggle, which was not covered in the US media. Often, these local struggles are lost. They rarely achieve everything hoped for. But they continue. The placid 1950s in America -- the golden age for conservatives -- had strikes by a union movement that was still comparatively strong, the struggle against McCarthyism, the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat Generation and the rise of rock music, which turned political in the 1960s and remains a form of popular expression.

3) History tends to taught as if it's mostly inevitable. In fact, it seems to me, it is often contingent. Things could turn out differently. This was where science fiction and alternative history come in: they show history as mutable. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is about an America where the Axis Powers won the war. Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain is about an America where John Brown succeeded at Harper's Ferry, and the final result is a black republic in the South.

Immanual Wallerstein argues that societies are usually stable, with periods of instability when they can change rapidly. This may be true. But the periods of instability are preceded by decades of struggle, that train people for change and keep hope alive. I would never argue that changing the world's superstructure is easy. But we must remember that the world is, in fact, changing all the time; and the small changes prepare us for the great convulsions.

So a radical history, it seems to me, ought to be popular, bumpy, turbulent, active and contingent. It ought to show the achievements of ordinary people, and the ways that ordinary life changes over time. All of American history is seething with struggle: labor wars, farmers movements, the Abolitionists, the struggle of American Indians to save some part of their native lands, Feminism, the fight of every ethnic group to overcome prejudice and establish new lives in a difficult environment. If you don't see these struggles and how they changed society and how people have been able to survive and sometimes win, then you will believe that the bosses always come out on top, and There Is No Alternative, as in the famous words of Margaret Thatcher.

Friday, September 16, 2011


We've had two-three days of wonderful cool, bright weather. This morning is gray, but still cool. I'm going to the Y for exercise soon. After that, I have nothing on, except maybe a trip to the library and -- tonight -- a lecture by Terry Bisson, who is in town for an anarchist book fair. Terry is one of my favorite SF writers, so this should be fun.

Otherwise, I am rereading my Lydia Duluth stories, before doing a final revision of the two new ones, and doing a final source check of my new Icelandic story, before giving it to my writing group.

I keep having this restless feeling that I want to write something new -- maybe a fantasy novel. Maybe YA. Something fun and adventurous. No clear ideas have emerged. We will see.

It takes me a long time of mulling, before things actually happen.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Picture (Not Stars)

Albert the Allosaurus by Lyda Morehouse

Say's Law

I was going to do a post on Say's Law and supply side economic theory, which is what the serious people in Washington all seem to follow. But then I decided, why bother?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Weather Report

A lovely day, a bit on the warm side -- 83F right now -- but dry, with a light wind. I walked by the river and looked at the planting around the Science Museum. Trees are turning just a little; milkweed pods are releasing fluff; goldenrod is blooming like crazy and the bees are going nuts collecting pollen. The air smells of dry vegetation. Late summer insects are making nosies in the grass.

It's cheering to be outside.


This view of the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley was captured last month by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the sharpest ever recorded from space. The high resolution image data was taken during a period when LRO's orbit was modified to create a close approach of about 22 kilometers as it passed over some of the Apollo landing sites. That altitude corresponds to only about twice the height of a commercial airline flight over planet Earth. Labeled in this image are Apollo 17 lunar lander Challenger's descent stage (inset), the lunar rover (LRV) at its final parking spot, and the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) left to monitor the Moon's environment and interior. Clear, dual lunar rover tracks and the foot trails left by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, the last to walk on the lunar surface, are also easily visible at the Apollo 17 site.

I think NASA posts photos like this to make us feel bad. Where is our observatory on the moon? Where is our journey to Mars?

Question for the Day

Sometime when I was very young, I noticed that as a nation moved toward a transforming crisis -- France at the end of the 18th century, Russia at the start of the 20th century -- the person in charge was an idiot. The question I had was -- did the crisis generate the idiot, or did the idiot make sure the crisis could not be solved? Looking at the US today, I still don't have an answer to the question.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Freedom and Information

Notice -- when we talk about information and freedom, as I was earlier -- that two meanings of the words are entangled; and the Obama Administration is enforcing two kinds of laws. One group is laws that limit information in the interests of security and state power; the other group is laws that control information in the interests of property.

In one case, free means "not imprisoned or enslaved, at liberty" or "not subject to arbitrary interference by a government." In the other case, free means "costing nothing; gratuitous."

In the first case, the opposite of free is "subject to arbitrary interference by a government." in the second case, the opposite of free is "owned" or "costing money."

Two different meanings, having to do with property and political rights. But they are interwoven.

In the end, I suspect, they cannot be separated, and that it's impossible to have expansive property rights -- ones that extend beyond personal belongings and the tools one works with -- and political freedom at the same time.

Maybe for a while. But in the end, property will overwhelm freedom.

Writing News

The current (October/November) issue of Asimov's has a story by me: "My Husband Steinn."

And the 28th edition of "The Year's Best Science Fiction" includes my "Mammoths of the Great Plains."

"Steinn" is a story based on Icelandic folklore and on the giant hydroelectric project in Eastern Iceland.

"Mammoths" is "Mammoths."

Other than that, I am trucking along on new Lydia Duluth stories and new hwarhath stories, and thinking of going back to a story I began years ago, titled "Nine Red Princes and a Yellow Demon."

And I still have to finish revising the sequel to Ring of Swords.


To some, the outline of the open cluster of stars M6 resembles a butterfly. M6, also known as NGC 6405, spans about 20 light-years and lies about 2,000 light years distant. M6 can best be seen in a dark sky with binoculars towards the constellation of Scorpius, coving about as much of the sky as the full moon. Like other open clusters, M6 is composed predominantly of young blue stars, although the brightest star is nearly orange. M6 is estimated to be about 100 million years old. Determining the distance to clusters like M6 helps astronomers calibrate the distance scale of the universe.

Sunday, September 04, 2011


In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn drifted in giant planet's shadow for about 12 hours in 2006 and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn, slightly scattering sunlight, in this exaggerated color image. Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the image. Seen in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, at the left, just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth.

Friday, September 02, 2011


With a 3.5 meter diameter mirror, larger than the Hubble Space Telescope, ESA's Herschel Space Observatory explores the Universe at infrared wavelengths. Herschel is named for German-born British astronomer Frederick William Herschel who discovered infrared light over 200 years ago. Herschel's sensitive cameras have combined to deliver this spectacular skyscape looking toward the constellation of the Southern Cross. Spanning some 2 degrees the premier, false-color, far-infrared view captures our galaxy's cold dust clouds in extreme detail, showing a remarkable, connected maze of filaments and star-forming regions. Such observations are intended to unravel mysteries of star formation by surveying broad areas of the galactic plane.