Friday, August 26, 2011

More from Glenn Greenwald

Ali Soufan is a long-time FBI agent and interrogator who was at the center of the U.S. government's counter-terrorism activities from 1997 through 2005, and became an outspoken critic of the government's torture program. He has written a book exposing the abuses of the CIA's interrogation program as well as pervasive ineptitude and corruption in the War on Terror. He is, however, encountering a significant problem: the CIA is barring the publication of vast amounts of information in his book including, as Scott Shane details in The New York Times today, many facts that are not remotely secret and others that have been publicly available for years, including ones featured in the 9/11 Report and even in Soufan's own public Congressional testimony...

A spokeswoman for the C.I.A., Jennifer Youngblood, said . . . ."Just because something is in the public domain doesn't mean it's been officially released or declassified by the U.S. government."

Just marvel at the Kafkaesque, authoritarian mentality that produces responses like that: someone can be censored, or even prosecuted and imprisoned, for discussing "classified" information that has long been documented in the public domain...

The Obama DOJ has continuously claimed that victims of the U.S. rendition, torture and eavesdropping programs cannot have their claims litigated in court because what was done to them are "state secrets" -- even when what was done to them has long been publicly known and even formally, publicly investigated and litigated in open court in other countries.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Information Wants to be Free. So Do People.

When we ponder the mystery of Barack Obama, we should remember that he has been consistent in two areas: the expansion of war and the expansion of the security state. Guantanamo is still open. People are still being held without trial or charges in Gitmo and elsewhere, apparently forever. Whistle blowers and people who actually believe in free information are savagely prosecuted, as are people who peacefully oppose government policy.

The idea seems to be: shut down opposition, silence those who question the state, at the same time as the Administration expands bombing to Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia. The CIA cooperates with the NYPD to spy on New York's Muslim community. The FBI raids peace activists in the Midwest.

This is from a Glenn Greenwald post last week:
Several weeks ago, a New York Times article by Noam Cohen examined the case of Aaron Swartz, the 24-year-old copyright reform advocate who was arrested in July, after allegedly downloading academic articles that had been placed behind a paywall, thus making them available for free online. Swartz is now being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness. Despite not profiting (or trying to profit) in any way -- the motive was making academic discourse available to the world for free -- he's charged with "felony counts including wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer" and "could face up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines."

The NYT article explored similarities between Swartz and Bradley Manning, another young activist being severely punished for alleged acts of freeing information without any profit to himself; the article quoted me as follows:

For Glenn Greenwald . . . it also makes sense that a young generation would view the Internet in political terms.

"How information is able to be distributed over the Internet, it is the free speech battle of our times," he said in interview. "It can seem a technical, legalistic movement if you don't think about it that way."

He said that point was illustrated by his experience with WikiLeaks -- and by how the Internet became a battleground as the site was attacked by hackers and as large companies tried to isolate WikiLeaks. Looking at that experience and the Swartz case, he said, "clearly the government knows that this is the prime battle, the front line for political control."

Greenwald ends his post as follows:
Economic suffering and anxiety -- and anger over it and the flamboyant prosperity of the elites who caused it -- is only going to worsen. So, too, will the refusal of the Western citizenry to meekly accept their predicament. As that happens, who it is who controls the Internet and the flow of information and communications takes on greater importance. Those who are devoted to preserving the current system of prerogatives certainly know that, and that is what explains this obsession with expanding the Surveillance State and secrecy powers, maintaining control over the dissemination of information, and harshly punishing those who threaten it. That's also why there are few conflicts, if there are any, of greater import than this one.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

More on Writing

I've been paying attention to how I wrote the current story, currently titled Kormak the Lucky.

It starts with an incident from the Egils saga: as an old man, Egil decides to hide two chests of silver so his son won't inherit them. He's eighty and blind, so he needs help. He takes two slaves with him to carry the silver and they go somewhere and hide the silver. Then Egil kills the slaves, so they can never tell where the silver is hidden. A remarkable achievement for an old, blind man, but hard on the slaves.

I have had an idea -- or image -- for some time. One of the slaves escapes, because an elf opens a door in a cliff and beckons him in. Egil can't see this, of course, and assumes that the slave has fallen in the crevice where the silver has been hidden.

So that is the start of the story: an incident from a saga and an image.

Then I had to figure out the rest of the story. My slave is Irish, as many Icelandic slaves were. I decided I want him to make it home to Ireland. But how? Well, he is underground in Elfland. Maybe there is an underground route to Ireland. So I take him through the country of the light elves, who are the elves of Icelandic folklore, and then through the land of the dark elves, who are mentioned in Snorri Sturlason's Prose Edda, but nowhere else. They may be dwarves, but we don't know for sure. So I can make up everything about them.

At that point, in the land of the dark elves, two things suddenly appeared in the story: one is an magical iron dog, who just walked out of the shadows. I didn't think I needed the dog and tried to get rid of him, but he was too interesting. He felt right. In the end, he stayed.

(I don't believe in talking about my characters as if they have wills of their own. They don't. However, my writing is not entirely a rational process. Sometimes images or ideas seem to come from nowhere, though I assume they come from somewhere in my mind.)

The next thing that came into the story was Volund the Smith, who appears in the Poetic Edda and also in Anglo-Saxon poetry and (I think) medieval German literature. It's a nasty story about violence and revenge. Since Volund is described as an "elf prince" in the Edda, he sort of fits in. I had a character tell it, to explain the iron dog, and then I extended the story of Volund, making it part of my hero's story, which ends in the land of the Irish fey and then -- finally -- in human Ireland.

I'm not going to add more detail. I hope to sell the story. You can read it then.

However, the point -- if there is one -- is that part of the story was rationally worked out; how to get my hero from the land of the Icelandic elves to Ireland was a rational problem: and part of it was intuitive: the original image of the door into Elfland, the iron dog and Volund.

There was no beginning-to-end plot. This particular story was made up as I went along, which means it's a picaresque journey. (If you make stuff up as you go along, you are likely to get a picaresque journey.) Of course, I had to go back and revise earlier parts, so they fit with the later parts.

This is the fourth story I have written that is based on Icelandic sagas or folklore. For some reason, they are all dark stories: three of the four spend a lot of time underground. I think they'd make a nice chapbook, titled The Hidden Folk, which is the Icelandic term for elves, although my stories are also about trolls, the devil and the undead.


I've trying to pay attention to how I write. It turns out I spend a lot more time writing than I thought, if I add in research and mulling. When I exercise, I spend 30 minutes walking the track at the Y, since I find this less boring than a treadmill. While I walk, I think about the story I'm currently writing. I also think about the current story while doing anything that isn't occupying -- riding a bus, in bed at the edge of sleep.

Yesterday, I read the Havamal in a bad online translation, looking for a quote I could use in a story. I didn't find it. I am now going to read my at-home, much better translation and see if I missed something. (I just checked. I can't find what I want. Maybe I need to look at Auden's translation of the Poetic Edda.)

This is writing work, though I am not putting words on paper. I have to remind myself of this. Otherwise, I think I barely write at all.

I can write more and should, if I am going to finish all the projects I have lined up. But I also have to allow for the mulling and research time.


The dust sculptures of the Eagle Nebula are evaporating. As powerful starlight whittles away these cool cosmic mountains, the statuesque pillars that remain might be imagined as mythical beasts. Pictured above is one of several striking dust pillars of the Eagle Nebula that might be described as a gigantic alien fairy. This fairy, however, is ten light years tall and spews radiation much hotter than common fire. The greater Eagle Nebula, M16, is actually a giant evaporating shell of gas and dust inside of which is a growing cavity filled with a spectacular stellar nursery currently forming an open cluster of stars. The above image in scientifically re-assigned colors was released in 2005 as part of the fifteenth anniversary celebration of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Denizens of planet Earth watched this year's Perseid meteor shower by looking up into the moonlit night sky. But this remarkable view captured by astronaut Ron Garan looks down on a Perseid meteor. From Garan's perspective onboard the International Space Station orbiting at an altitude of about 380 kilometers, the Perseid meteors streak below, swept up dust left from comet Swift-Tuttle heated to incandescence. The glowing comet dust grains are traveling at about 60 kilometers per second through the denser atmosphere around 100 kilometers above Earth's surface. In this case, the foreshortened meteor flash is right of frame center, below the curving limb of the Earth and a layer of greenish airglow. Out of the frame, the Sun is on the horizon beyond one of the station's solar panel arrays at the upper right. Seen above the meteor near the horizon is bright star Arcturus and a star field that includes the constellations Bootes and Corona Borealis. The image was recorded on August 13 while the space station orbited above an area of China approximately 400 kilometers to the northwest of Beijing.

I want this photo for the cover of a book...

Monday, August 15, 2011

What If?

There's been discussion on the Book View Cafe Blog: what if you had an adequate income from a patron, so money was not a consideration. What would you write? Would you write at all?

One of the comments, which I really liked, came from Nancy Jane Moore. She said she'd love to have the time to write -- and do all the things that nourish writing. Reading, thinking, spending time with music and art.

I wrote:
I like Nancy Jane Moore’s comment. It reminds me of all the things I need to do besides write: concerts, museums, walks, reading, thinking. Something else to structure into my life, now that I have time.

I spent most of my working life working part time or saving money and quitting to write full time, then getting another job when the money ran out. I knew I wanted to write, and I knew writing was financially risky. It seemed smarter to have a day job and write what I wanted, when I wanted. It meant that I never had enough writing time, but it enabled me to walk away from contracts I didn’t like and to take all the time necessary to do a good job.

It’s unsettling to know I may never have another day job. But I am writing more, and I think that’s my priority right now.

Why to I write? Because I always have, since childhood; and I like the attention; and I think making art is an important job, worth doing; and because it helps me deal with a difficult world.


What can the present-day terrain in and around large Endeavour crater tell us about ancient Mars? Starting three years ago, NASA sent a coffee-table sized robot named Opportunity on a mission rolling across the red planet's Meridiani Planum to find out. Last week, it finally arrived. Expansive Endeavour crater stretches 22 kilometers from rim to rim, making it the largest crater ever visited by a Mars Exploration Rover (MER). It is hypothesized that the impact that created the crater exposed ancient rock that possibly formed under wet conditions, and if so, this rock may yield unique clues to the watery past of Mars. Pictured above, the west rim of Endeavour looms just ahead of the Opportunity rover. Opportunity may well spend the rest of its operational life exploring Endeavour, taking pictures, spinning its wheels, and boring into intriguing rocks.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


“Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.”

George Bernard Shaw

Another Comment

Modern economics pretends to be a science like physics. It is not, though many economists manage to produce a lot of math. However, the math in physics describes reality and can be tested against reality. (This is not true of superstring theory thus far, and this is the problem with superstring theory. But in general, science is tested in the real world.)

The advantage of pretending to be a science like physics is, it makes the system you describe look inevitable and unchangeable. If economics claimed to be a social or historical science, it would have to admit how much economic behavior is contingent and capable of change.

If economics is any kind of science (and it's possible it is largely fake), then it is a social and historical science, like sociology, anthropology, political science, history... All of these tell us human behavior is variable, and change happens. We are not living in the Paleolithic or in the Middle Ages. Society is different now.

Economists have a terrible track record in reality, as sane economists often point out. If they were physicists or janitors, they would lose their jobs for incompetence. (See Dean Baker on this topic.) There are a couple of reasons for this. One is, it's difficult or impossible to come up with mathematical models for something as complex as human behavior. The other is, economists get ahead by justifying the existing economic system and telling us, in the famous words of Margaret Thatcher, "There is no alternative."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Comment on the Post Below

Can't is a dangerous word. Always examine it closely. Humans cannot fly unaided in the gravity at Earth's surface. As far as we know now, this cannot be done. But we can rebuild the world, and we can create a decent society. Strong forces oppose us, but they are human forces, not natural laws.

Visible Poverty, Invisible Wealth

Somewhere on the Internet I read a description of flying into New York from Europe: how shabby, rundown and beat up Kennedy Airport looks compared to European airports. The same can be said about most -- maybe all -- of our public structures. Compare decaying American bridges to the amazing new bridges in China. Compare Amtrak to the bullet trains in Europe and Asia. Look at photos of skyscrapers in Shanghai, which are truly space age. Per one article I just glanced at, architects are coming from all over the world to work in Shanghai.

When I was a kid, the US was the bright and shiny modern country with new, state-of-the-art schools and new, state-of-the-art highways, a whole new way of life based on cars and suburbs and created by government spending. (You think the government didn't pay for all this? What about government built highways and water systems, which made the new suburbs possible? What about the government mortgages, that enabled people to buy homes? What about the GI loans that put a generation through college?)

Since then, over the last 30+ years, we have developed a culture of visible poverty. This can be seen in our public spaces and in the lives of most Americans.

(There was always poverty. That was the reason for the War on Poverty. But there wasn't a sense that the entire country was poor, at least after the Great Depression ended.)

Clinton got rid of traditional welfare, AFDC, which was an attempt to make sure families with children had a minimal income. Public housing projects have been written off as failures, and nothing has replaced them. (Public housing has actually worked quite well in the Twin Cities, which never built gigantic projects. But there isn't enough of it.) We have gotten used to homeless shelters and food shelves, to people begging and sleeping in the streets.

And we have gotten used to the stagnant income and eroding wealth of the middle classes. Now, we see boarded up houses in middle class neighborhoods and middle class families using food shelves or ending in shelter.

Obama is now getting ready to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which will increase poverty, especially among older Americans. We can look forward to seeing elderly Americans sleeping -- and dying -- in the streets.

As a result of all this -- the increasingly impoverishment of the poor and the middle classes, and a country that looks increasingly rundown -- we tend to think that the US has no money. This is not true. It's the richest country in the world. But its wealth is -- to a considerable extent -- invisible. We get glimpses on Fifth Avenue or Chicago's Golden Mile, but most of us don't go where the rich go to shop. We don't visit seriously wealthy suburbs and gated communities. We don't eat in seriously expensive restaurants. We don't fly on the same planes. They have private jets. We have Delta.

We know that movie stars and sports stars are rich, but we don't know how rich; and they are figures in People magazine, not entirely real to us. Mostly what we see is the upper middle classes, who look rich to us, but are merely more comfortable than we will ever be.

So, we have a country that is deteriorating at most levels, while a tiny sector of the population has vast wealth. And we are told this is real poverty, inherent poverty, the country does not have the resources to rebuild itself. BS.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

This is a comment I made on a post at Book View Cafe, which has an interesting blog, mostly about writing.

Writing never made me much money; I’ve never made a living at it; but I’m happier when I write. I did nonprofit accounting for years. I like it. But who I am is tied up in writing and in the writing communities I belong to. If I were asked what I did with my life, I’d say I wrote and made friends — and spent a huge amount of time thinking about and talking about politics. The last has been frustrating. But the writing and the friends have been satisfying.

Monday, August 08, 2011


What is causing these dark streaks on Mars? A leading hypothesis is flowing -- but quickly evaporating -- water. The streaks, visible in dark brown near the image center, appear in the Martian spring and summer but fade in the winter months, only to reappear again the next summer. These are not the first markings on Mars that have been interpreted as showing the effects of running water, but they are the first to add the clue of a seasonal dependence. The above picture, taken in May, digitally combines several images from the the HiRISE instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The image is color-enhanced and depicts a slope inside Newton crater in a mid-southern region of Mars. The streaks bolster evidence that water exists just below the Martian surface in several locations, and therefore fuels speculation that Mars might harbor some sort of water-dependent life. Future observations with robotic spacecraft orbiting Mars, such as MRO, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey will continue to monitor the situation and possibly confirm -- or refute -- the exciting flowing water hypothesis.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Against Stupidity the Gods Themselves Contend in Vain

The obvious explanation for Obama and the part of the capitalist class he represents is -- they don't really think global warming will happen. Or if it happens, it won't be bad. Or it will happen after they die, and their children don't matter.

The last actually sounds the most likely to me.

But I do have another explanation: they think it will happen and be bad, but they will survive. My current idea is, they will retreat into armored enclaves, guarded by private armies, and live comfortably while most of the rest of us die.

Imagine arcologies in the far north or far south, full of the rich and their servants: doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, plumbers, hair stylists, gourmet chefs... Around these settlements are military emplacements...

Now, the questions I have are the following: could these enclaves survive in the absence of a world-wide industrial civilization? Could they produce their own capital equipment and consumer goods? Could they do their own maintenance and repair?

Second, in the absence of national governments -- which would vanish in the collapse of human civilization, how could the rich maintain power? Why wouldn't their security forces simply turn on them?

Forests would be gone, except for what the archologies grew. The oceans would be mostly dead. There might be some agriculture left outside, but it would likely be subsistence, carried on by the few people who survived. If the rich needed metal they would have to send out armed expeditions to mine. Plastic would require petroleum. Maybe they could get bacteria to make it... If not, they would have to try drilling for it in depleted fields, while dust storms whirled around.

Law and government, if they existed, would exist only within the arcologies. Outside, there would be places like Somalia and Afghanistan, if that much remained.

Capitalism has survived and grown by exploiting natural resources and with the help of governments that protected and encouraged it. Could it continue to exist as isolated settlements?

Footnote on the Above

Life in the armored enclaves would be very different from the life of the rich now: no trips to Paris and fabulous vacation spots, no shopping on Fifth Avenue, no opening nights at the Metropolitan Opera or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At best, you would have the life of Prince Esterhazy, who built a palace -- a kind of minor Versailles -- in a swamp in Hungary and had his own orchestra, directed by Haydn. Very nice, but you can never get away to Vienna.

It would be like living in an upscale version of the movie Logan's Run.

The Mystery Man

There seem to be two theories about Barack Obama. One is he's a spineless invertebrate and a terrible negotiator, who keeps being outmaneuvered by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.

The other is he's fiendish Machiavel, who only pretends to be a Democrat and who achieves Republican goals while appearing to be outmaneuvered by Republicans.

I am not sure either is true. If you look at his behavior in areas where he has control -- foreign policy, war and security -- he has continued and expanded Bush policy. He has continued two illegal wars and added four more (Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia). He has kept the illegal prison at Guantanamo open. His Justice Department has refused to go after Wall Street criminals, but has been active is going after whistle blowers and peace and environmental activists. Check Glenn Greenwald's fine blog for details on all of this.

This makes him look like a Republican -- or a Democratic hawk, of which there have been many. His natural impulses seem conservative and authoritarian, and he is obviously interested in managing appearance, rather than changing reality.

However, when you look at his legislative history, which is not fully in his control, he looks less like a fiendish 11-dimensional chess player and more like a clueless idiot.

Look at the debt ceiling mess, which went on apparently forever and ended in a terrible deal and a downgrading of the country's bond rating. Obama looked dishonest and inept throughout.

There are other examples of ineptness -- The year-long struggle to create a national health plan which resulted in a godawful mess of a bill, which does not solve the main problem: the cost of health care.

His handling of the economic collapse doesn't look especially smart to me. And how is it fiendishly clever to ignore global warming? Is he planning to move to Mars?

Now -- you can say these are all signs that he's a weasel working for the bosses. But remember that capitalism is not monolithic. There are corporations that would benefit from infrastructure repair, clean energy, affordable health care, honest banks, and a planet which can be inhabited...

How is it good for capitalism to have a financial system that might collapse tomorrow, or an economy that may never recover, or a planet that is largely desert?

If you can't see and deal with obvious problems which threaten your existence, you are not much of a fiendish plotter in my book. My villains always have a clue.

Footnote from the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms:
Machiavel [mak‐yă‐vel], a type of stage villain found in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and named after the Florentine political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, whose notorious book Il Principe (The Prince, 1513) justified the use of dishonest means to retain state power. Exaggerated accounts of Macchiavelli's views led to the use of his name—sometimes directly referred to in speeches—for a broad category of ruthless schemers, atheists, and poisoners. Shakespeare's Iago and Richard III are the most famous examples of the type.


The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading white dwarf. In 1995, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the hourglass. The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process that are helping to resolve the outstanding mysteries of the complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulas.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


My story "Mammmoths of the Great Plains" has been nominated for the Carl Brandon Society's Kindred Award "for an outstanding speculative fiction work dealing
with race, ethnicity, and culture."

Pretty cool.

Letter to my Congresspeople

I lay in bed last night and drafted a letter to my Congresswoman and two Senators on what Congress and the President are not dealing with:

1. Global warming. This is the big one. Failure to reduce greenhouse gases could lead to the planet being largely uninhabitable. This is not an exaggeration.

2. The financial system, which remains both crooked and fragile. Right now, there is good reason to believe most big banks are bankrupt. Only creative accounting makes them look solvent. We need to clean up this mess: take over the banks, determine what they are actually worth, break up the too-big-to-fail banks and create new banking regulations.

3. The economy. It looks as if we are sinking deeper into recession. Another Great Depression is possible, if the governments of the US and Europe do not intervene.
Intervening does not mean saving banks. It means saving people and countries.

4. Infrastructure. The basis of American society -- roads, bridges, water mains, sewer lines, buildings -- is falling apart. Everything needs to be repaired or replaced.

5. Health costs, which continue to rise and suck wealth out of the entire economy. The way to control costs (and provide health care to the nation) is a national health care system like Canada, the Western European countries, Medicare or the VA.

6. Sustainable energy. We need it.

7. Sustainable agriculture. We need it.

This is long enough list for now. All these problems can be solved. We have the resources. But we have to start soon.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Being on Panels

I've decided to take a break from reading political news, because I find it depressing. But I still want to begin my day by reading on the Internet. So I've read a mixture of stuff, including Michelle Sagara's post on how panels are not about you, the individual, maybe-not-so-famous author.

I did a little cringing, because I was on a panel at Convergence on the short fiction of Eleanor Arnason, and I took the panel over. I don't know what came over me: a brief fit of madness, maybe. Anyway, I talked about current writing and future plans for writing and actually described plots. I don't usually do this, and I wish I had kept quiet and let the other panelists talk about me.

In any case, Michelle Sagara is right: telling the plots of your fiction is a no-no, though I have always done it. But not usually on panels.

But I'm still inclined to think the panels I'm on are about me and my ideas. I don't do panels unless I have something to say about the topic, and then I really want to say it. If I am lucky, the other panelists will be equally interested in the topic and eager to talk.

I should add that I spent years learning how to talk intelligently in front of an audience, and I usually do not walk into panels cold. I have thought about the topic and sometimes have notes.

Monday, August 01, 2011


What's that strange bright streak? It is the last image ever of a space shuttle from orbit. A week and a half ago, after decoupling from the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle Atlantis fired its rockets for the last time, lost its orbital speed, and plummeted back to Earth. Within the next hour, however, the sophisticated space machine dropped its landing gear and did what used to be unprecedented -- landed like an airplane on a runway. Although the future of human space flight from the USA will enter a temporary lull, many robotic spacecraft continue to explore our Solar System and peer into our universe, including Cassini, Chandra, Chang'e 2, Dawn, Fermi, Hubble, Kepler, LRO, Mars Express, Messenger, MRO, New Horizons, Opportunity, Planck, Rosetta, SDO, SOHO, Spitzer, STEREO, Swift, Venus-Express, and WISE.