Monday, January 26, 2009

Brian Aldiss' Hothouse

On an implicit recommendation within Adam Roberts' Palgrave History of SF, I recently finished reading Brian Aldiss' early work Hothouse. The consideration of this important book is my excuse for an extended ramble on science in SF, other works by Aldiss, grand narrative, and the unreliable omniscient narrator.

Hothouse was written in 1961 as five short stories, winning a Hugo in 1962 as short fiction, and later emerged through the SF "fix-up" process as a novel. It's apparently been recently re-issued. It manages to encapsulate everything that I feel, as a reader, about Aldiss' work in general. On the one hand, it's brilliant work by a skilled writer with literary ambitions, and deserves serious attention by literary critics. On the other, it's annoying.

Do you get the feeling that I'm going to spend more time on the second of these than the first? Since the only people who read this blog probably already know my writing style -- at any rate, first, why should everyone interested in literary SF read this book? Because, as Adam Roberts points out, it's a giant metaphor for SF. The novel is set in a future-world overgrown jungle planet, actually the Earth after the Sun has expanded. Its hapless humans have shrunken in size and in mental capability, though the last may be more a matter of lost culture and knowledge than anything else. As is proper for an SF jungle from this era, everything, including eerily aggressive plants, is a predator on everything else. (Wiki informs me that Aldiss' military service in jungles in Burma may have helped to inspire the novel, and also that he put together an anthology of Venus-jungle stories called Farewell, Fantastic Venus!.) But this is only background; the heart of what makes this a literary novel is "the morel". The morel is a parasitic fungus that acts like an auxiliary brain of sorts; when it attaches itself to a human, it can not only render them more intelligent and inform them of the contents of its own memories, it can dig through and interpret their ancestral memories as well. Again per Roberts (although any misrepresentations of his idea are mine), it acts as a cognate for the concern with "ideas" of SF itself.

The protagonist, Gren, isn't just informed and made more intelligent by the morel -- as well as being controlled by it in ultimately destructive ways -- he's also brought by it into modernity. He is changed from a person reacting within a tradition of inherited social structure to someone with a familiar, contemporary mindset that the world is shapable, controllable through thought and effort. Therefore, it's saying something about colonialism, too, which Aldiss had first-hand knowledge of from India and Indonesia. Gren's mate manages to detach the morel after it attempts to parasitize their child as well. But even after it's gone, Gren has been changed by it -- when someone from an advanced civilization wants him to do something, his choices aren't limited to refusal or agreement, he now knows how to argue.

The morel manages to later take over one of the "travellers": huge, mobile plants shaped like giant spiders that spin webs that extend from the Earth to the Moon. It informs Gren that the universe has cycles of growth and decay, evolution and devolution, and that life is about to pack up and leave the Earth. The morel offers to give Gren a ride on the traveller; other, former members of Gren's tribe are going to go along inside it, to find a new habitable planet around another star. But Gren refuses. He points out that the morel has said that the catastrophe won't occur for several human generations, so why should he care? He is "tired of carrying and being carried." He tells the morel to "fill a whole empty world with people and fungus" if it wants to. His son's grandson will live in the jungle, as he has. So he goes back to the (eventually) doomed Earth.

SF that rejects the primacy of thought, ideas, adventure, even survival -- that makes this a literary experiment. As such, it's a highly interesting one. And that "tired of carrying and being carried" is highly evocative. It works on a physical level, since Gren carries both the morel and later the sodal, a sort of person-sized intelligent aquatic creature that is proud of its knowledge, and Gren also uses the morel to be himself physically carried by various other creatures. It's also metaphorical, in the sense that people in modernity not only carry around the omnipresent mediation of their worldview, but are carried by it; the kind of people who read SF novels are probably thoroughly familiar with the concept of living off one's intelligence even if they don't personally do it. But it's also about SF, and how it likes to describe itself as "the literature of ideas," so that books are carried along by the quality of their ideas, and carry a sort of simulated science forward to their readers. Aldiss is registering some of the discomfort with traditional SF tropes that would animate the New Wave, which is usually said to begin three years after this, in 1964.

But onwards to criticism that I haven't basically cribbed from Roberts, which, sadly, is the negative part. I'm not trying to trash the book, but I don't see any value in shiny-sunny criticism that accentuates the positive and ignores the rest. I learned more from figuring out what I thought was wrong with this book than I did from appreciating what was right about it.

Why, exactly, do I find this work annoying? It starts with that jungle. The book was written before the era of popularized evolutionary biology a la Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene in 1976, and it shows it. Therefore, species and their evolutionary changes are always being anthropomorphized in purposeful-sounding ways; for instance, species "copy" other species' evolutionary adaptations. By itself, that's minor, and could be fixed by mentally substituting concepts of convergent evolution and so on. Where it can't be fixed is that Aldiss wants to tie the changes going on to a grand narrative of cycles of growth and decay. Evolution simply doesn't work like that.

But why should that matter? The idea of webs stretching from (tide-locked) Earth to Moon doesn't work in terms of physics, and I'm not bothered by that, even though I have a degree in astrophysics. I think that's because it's merely an incidental detail -- I don't really look for SF to have scientific accuracy. But I distrust grand narratives. Aldiss has Teilhard de Chardin'd up the place.

Why is that more serious than any amount of misplaced physics? Because it conflicts with his rejection of the SF-idea. One essence of contemporary science, as I understand it from my minimal experience of it -- I've done about as little science as you can do and still be said to have done some science -- is acceptance of randomness. Which, in its biological aspect, more often takes the form of historical contingency. The SF books that I've read that really made me sit up and say "Wow, this seems like actual science" were those from the chill, invigorating Arctic breeze of Stanislaw Lem: Solaris and, say, The Chain of Chance, or The Investigation. The SF-idea of science is almost always elsewhere tied to a narrative that neatly explains. Aldiss giving in to this, even as he calls it into question, seems like a highly troubling flaw. Nor is this something that seems to me to be dismissible as an artifact of its time. Olaf Stapledon, who wrote mystical, evolutionary SF, wrote earlier, and his work always had the saving grace in this respect, for me, of acknowledging accident -- the human race in his Last and First Men (if I remember rightly) fails to make some evolutionary jump, and who knows why? It's not part of some cosmic cycle or plan, it's just an accidental failure, so, goodbye.

Nor is this a feature of Aldiss' work that is limited to Hothouse. It appears, for instance, in one of his other major biological works, the 1980s Heliconia trilogy, one of the batch of series that depend on worlds that have unusually long seasons to drive the plot as well as provide a background of larger-than-human-scale cycles (e.g. Paul Park's Starbridge Chronicles, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series). But the biology in Heliconia seems to keep creeping into mysticism; at one point, the residents of the Earth think good thoughts to change the Heliconians' world-wide relationship to their communicable ancestral spirits, which seem to have some material existence. Who can say that such things are impossible? It's not the impossibility that I object to, but rather the way in which things keep getting swept up.

Worse, it's a problem that in another way affects the most splendid failure in SF, Aldiss' Report on Probability A. That's a book that certainly deserves its own post, but in short, it's an "anti-novel" consisting mostly of repetitive, obsessional, purposefully banal descriptions of what static, solitary characters are doing and surrounded by. Three men are observing a house with a woman living in it, and themselves being observed by extra-planar observers, who wish to know why they are doing it. Sadly, this last question is not un-answerable. By the end of the book -- does this count as a spoiler? it could just be my misinterpretation, I suppose -- a too-plausible theory and too much dwelling within the head of one of the three has made it far too likely that the three simply are attracted to the woman, another man's wife, who may or may not have been slightly leading them on, and that they are hanging about obsessionally as much because they can't figure it out as in unrequited attraction. How much better the book would have been if the reader had had no real idea, by the end! Why did it have to be explained? That just makes it into a novel again.

There's one other thing that troubled me about both Hothouse and Heliconia, the unreliable omniscient narrator. In Hothouse, it's probably because it's a fix-up of multiple short stories, but still-- in the beginning of the novel, the narrator confidently tells us that there are only something like five specific non-plant species surviving on the Earth, all of the other niches having been taken by mobile plants. This isn't the narrator passing on the knowledge of Gren or his tribe; it's the narrator just telling us. And it's not vague: the narrator lists each of them. Then each succeeding part of the book adds more animal species that aren't among those five. If Aldiss was going to dump all this worldbuilding detail on us, couldn't he at least make it consistent through the book? But instead it seems to change according to what theme he's on at the moment. When he wants to impress with the idea of a plantosphere, there are only five non-plant species. When later he wants to do a picaresque, well, there have to be more creatures for the protagonists to run into. And later, when he wants to get into Stapledonian replacements of one form of humanity by another over time, there's a whole lot of different species of humanoids. I can accept an unreliable narrator, but when that narrator appears to be the author that's a different matter. In Heliconia, too, details of his biology seem to keep changing slightly from one omniscient description to the next.

But wishing that Aldiss had had a more picky editor is a comparatively minor problem. More generally, this kind of thing is always going to be a problem for SF; an author as omniscient narrator who tells you what a character is thinking can almost always be assumed to be right -- after all, the author wrote the character. But SF, which tells you about a world in addition, is susceptible to contradiction by our changing knowledge of what worlds are like. You can believe that Venus is a jungle, then a probe goes on a nearby fly-by, and it's farewell, fantastic Venus. This does not seem to me to be a feature of SF rather than a bug. The fantastic-venus stories are now, in my opinion, probably generally unreadable. If they had started out as fantasies, they wouldn't be. It's a problem that has not been generally apparent because SF self-identified as SF has only been around for a century or so. But Aldiss' failure to achieve internal self-consistency makes it emerge far sooner than it otherwise would. In this, of course, he also provokes thought about the genre that would not otherwise have emerged.

Aldiss is a giant of the New Wave -- as one of the founders, he got to be one of Moorcock's Granbrettanian gods, as Bjrin Adass -- and this book is well worth reading. But its problems seem to me to mix uncomfortably with its strengths, and can't be ignored.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An agenda for the Toxic Release Inventory

Today Obama signed a new Executive Order revitalizing FOIA, and spoke about transparency being one of the touchstones of his Presidency. As a sort of minor reciprocal gesture of faith, I've decided to put up an agenda of changes that I think should be made to the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), one of U.S. EPA's most successful data programs. At any time during the last eight years, I wouldn't have talked about these ideas in any public forum until each piece was ready to be proposed formally, knowing that talking about the agenda beforehand would only give industry a heads-up to prepare to scuttle it. But perhaps being willing to talk about it beforehand will help everything go more smoothly. Needless to say, I'm also eager to hear about other people's ideas.

I have no formal authority to propose these kinds of changes at all, and am not writing this under any organizational affiliation. They are simply my personal ideas. However, I've worked extensively on the Toxic Release Inventory outside EPA since 1990, and I consider myself to be an expert on it. There are a number of organizations which I plan to work with to propose these things formally, in the event that no one else does.

I'll try to provide a little bit of background, in the unlikely event that anyone reads this who doesn't know all about TRI already. If you want to find out basic information about the Toxic Release Inventory, you can go to EPA's Web page on it, but in short it's a database, legislatively mandated to be publicly accessible in electronic form, that requires most kinds of large, fixed polluters to report their releases and transfers of toxic chemicals, as well as the toxic chemicals in waste that they generate. Unlike EPA's hazardous waste databases, it also requires that these reports be of the amount of chemical, not the amount of chemical plus inert filler, and that the reports be in common units. Facilities have to report releases of chemicals to air, land, water, and underground. These characteristics make the database EPA's most useful one for general toxic pollution issues. TRI was the model for many similar databases in other countries; these databases are generally called PRTRs, Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers.

The Toxic Release Inventory has had notable expansions during its now decades-long span -- waste data was added by the Pollution Prevention Act in 1991, Federal facilities added in 1994, hundreds of chemicals added in 1995, new industries outside manufacturing had to report starting in 1998, and data on persistent bioaccumulative chemicals was expanded in 2000. And for the last eight years, that's where it has stood -- other than a disgraceful reduction in TRI data in 2006, when the "Form A" option for facilities to avoid reporting was expanded, despite widespread opposition from the public, lawmakers, and scientists. Suffice it to say that although EPA's civil service employees generally understand the value of TRI, the administration running the agency at that time was actively hostile.

So these ideas have been around, in some cases, for many years, but there was no point in proposing them until the administration changed. Now that it has, here they are:

1. Add chemicals that cause global anthropogenic climate change (global warming)

This would be primarily CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide -- the Montreal Protocol chemicals, which also contribute to global warming, are already in TRI. I'm not a lawyer, but I would think that this would be possible under current legal authority because chemicals can be added to TRI if they cause a sufficient adverse effect on the environment, which GHGs are now known to do. The statute does refer to the adverse effect as being due to toxicity, so this interpretation is not certain. But if new authority is needed, it's going to be gotten anyways -- the Obama administration plans to do something about global warming, and you can hardly do anything about it without tracking emissions.

I can understand that people who want to track GHGs may want a new database designed for that particular purpose. (Currently EPA and DOE have a patchwork of databases, none of which were really designed for that, and which are going to have to be replaced.) TRI has certain limitations as a database tracking GHGs; what, for example, would be done about transportation sources, like fleets of trucks? But it seems to me that these chemicals should be added to TRI in any case, even if another database is created to specifically track them, as a cross-check. The information would also then benefit from TRI's well-developed distribution paths and user base. And TRI would come closer to matching other countries' PRTRs, several of which added GHGs quite a few years ago.

2. Change range reporting and speciation reporting of highly toxic chemicals

Since the beginning of TRI, people have faced the problem that TRI most easily allows comparison of raw pounds of chemicals -- but some chemicals are much more toxic than others, and some releases affect more people than others. These problems are attacked by a (in my opinion) excellent program within EPA called RSEI. But whenever there is a data release using data from RSEI -- most recently, the USA Today report -- the same thing happens, a facility reports a release range of 11-499 pounds of a highly toxic chemical like chromium compounds or diisocyanates, and this rightly is converted by EPA into the midpoint of the range, 250 pounds. (I blogged about a case of this here). 250 pounds is generally a very large release, for these chemicals, and it makes facilities pop up as major polluters and wastes everyone's time as people have to track down what is really going on. Most often, it turns out that the facility either thinks that its releases are towards the bottom of the range, or they don't release the more dangerous form of a chemical with two or more forms -- hexavalent vs trivalent chromium, for instance.

EPA could help both the reporting facilities and the public by changing the reporting rules. First, for those highly toxic chemicals that have more than one common form, EPA could require that each form be reported separately. This is already done for Dioxin. Second, EPA could prevent release and transfer range reporting from being used for these chemicals, or at least warn people who report through the TRI-ME reporting software what they are about to do.

3. Fix the Form A.

I won't write about attempts to roll back Form A reporting to what it used to be; that's already being done by various people. But whether the expanded Form A is rolled back or not, EPA should change the way in which it treats already-reported Form A data. A Form A should be treated as a range report, in the same way as TRI release and transfer ranges are treated. If someone sends in a current Form A for a non-PBT chemical, they are reporting that they release not more than 2000 pounds of the chemical, and generate in waste not more than 5000 pounds. This is not zero pounds. In fact, it's a range: 0-2000 pounds for releases, and EPA should use its well-established procedure for handling release ranges and take the midpoint, converting this to a quantity within the database of 1000 pounds. This would preserve the TRI reporter's ability to not have to take the time to fill out the additional information required for a Form R, but it would also give the public a more accurate estimation, based on best available information, of what is going on. If a TRI reporter didn't want the public to assume that the best guess was 1000 pounds, they always have the option of choosing to fill out a Form R and reporting any number of pounds, including zero.

This procedure is currently used for TRI data provided by RTK NET (described here), so I know that it's both possible and easy to do. The release media (air, land, or water) can't be determined, but a general Form A pseudo-release-medium can be assigned. No change in how facilities report would be required in order to do this; it could be done simply as an internal change in how EPA handles the data.

4. Fix Pollution Prevention Act reporting.

Pollution Prevention Act data were added to TRI in 1991, and they've never been able to be done exactly right. The waste data are currently reported as amounts recycled on and off site, burned for energy recovery on and off site, treated (destroyed) on and off site, and released or disposed of on and off site in various ways. But all of these numbers were supposed to add up to a single number, the quantity of the chemical in waste generated by the facility. That's because reporting these numbers was supposed to encourage source reduction, the practice of changing processes to reduce the amount of waste generated. But the regulation was sabotaged by ideologues at the Office of Management and Budget, and EPA was prevented from defining what a waste was, or something similar. So it could only require that facilities report the components that add up to the overall waste number, without really referring to it in a coherent way.

I don't know whether any actual change in reporting is required for this to happen -- perhaps just better guidance from EPA? Re-opening the issue with a new OMB? Perhaps having facilities total up their Section 8 waste quantities and report the total would help them realize what it's supposed to be for.

5. Re-open cooperation with other countries' PRTRs

I'm not sure where this stands, organizationally, and it's not the kind of thing I'd know about directly. (Although I have worked for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation on putting together a Web site to display combined U.S., Canadian, and Mexican PRTR data.) But it seems to me that EPA could have more of a sense of where chemicals within TRI stand within an international comparison. Just about the entire First World has some sort of PRTR -- does EPA track transfers from one country to another using multiple PRTRs? Could they, perhaps, report on how U.S. emissions of particular chemicals compare to those of other countries? I'd guess that more is being done on this score than I know about, but anything that EPA can do to make this kind of data more truly global would be highly valuable.

(I should probably note that I once tried to put together a proposal to make a free, publicly accessible database-backed Web site that would allow people to search all the PRTRs at once. I couldn't find a funder for it -- most charitable foundations and NGOs that I deal with focus on the U.S. That was a few years back, and I don't know whether anyone is doing that now, but it would still be a good idea.)

That's probably enough for now. I invite anyone who wants to comment on this to feel free to.
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Monday, January 19, 2009

Poetry: For Obama's Inauguration

Here's the poem I'm going to be reading for the 100 inaugural poets project that I mentioned here. I tried a number of approaches, and finally decided that the earliest influences are best. So pour out a 40 for Theodore Geisel and join me:

For Obama's Inauguration

Hail to the President of hope and change!
On this great day we rearrange
The chairs on our high deck of state
All good things come to us who had to wait
Our age, born with the Southern strategy,
Perfected by Reagan's dolt jubilee,
Produced in Bush Two the one who is worst
So hail lesser evil! Hail Barack the First!
So long have the worst been the people's choice
That now, first in decades, is our time to rejoice
The TV flicker of hange and chope
Must signal something better than Clinton's scope

Oh dear, I can't read in the sun's glare
What I thought I could see isn't quite there
I should have pasted my papers, they're blowing away,
I can't even say what I wanted to say...

Hey mister, you dropped something –

Now that you stopped, got any spare change?
I'll just drink it down, but that isn't strange
I've lived my whole life in this country
But what has America been to me?
A nation in cowardice since 9/11,
Hell on Earth so they can dream about Heaven,
More people in jail than ever before,
Eager to torture, cheering for war
You can't blame just Bush as the one selected
The second time, he was even elected
And Obama thinks he can pull them together?
Good luck, guy, in stormy weather
Hey Obama, after all they've been through
Less than half of white people voted for you!
This country's like someone with a cough
Staggering on with one leg cut off

Yeah sure, Obama is a dream
A black President's good for our self-esteem
Been waiting long, but you know what I've heard?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it fall like old dry grapes off a vine?
Or soar like a suit blown off a clothesline?

You first know a President by who he brings in
And Rick Warren's the minister next to him
Hey Rick! How's it feel to push down Jesus' head?
Force your words into his mouth, say it's what he said?
Rick Warren's the Anti-Christ of our days
And being a Christian's about hating gays
Obama says those divided times are done
I look around and see them going on
Obama's going to compromise and waste our chance
When we need to wake up, we'll get the same old trance...

I've been listening, homeless guy, it's not quite like that --

Sure we'll try to get some spare change shaken out
But there's hope too coming after the drought
I'm a machinist, and I work on the machine
A machine made of people is the type I mean
Not the old style, for politicians to get elected
But the new kind, to combine the rejected
Our problems can be fixed, we know how to do it
We have to break the system and push through it
The GOP showed us how, they did indeed
Because 51 percent is all you need

Obama? Yeah I know about his biz
A man in Chicago told me how he is
The more you work for him, the more you believe,
The less of his regard you will receive
That's fine. I can give that my respect
Because who does he need for his projects?
He'll try to make nice, and not make a fuss
But in the end, he has to come back to us
We're the ones who put him there, and he hates to lose
And when push comes to shove, we're the ones who will choose
It's not his strength, but his weakness that gives hope
When he finds that Rick Warren won't help him cope
He'll have to turn to the new spread-out machine
That sent him small money, sent the ballots in
He wants to “look forwards,” let the war crimes go
But things can never change if we never say no
The system doesn't work, Constitution's disrupted
With a President King and a Court that's corrupted
We need a new deal, throw the old one away
And if Obama wants our help he has to pay
By giving us more than just chope and hange
He makes deals, so our system's gonna change
And if after all that we try to preserve it
We deserve to get screwed, because suckers deserve it

Come on, now, let's put the machine together
That'll be our prayer, in every weather
To make something tireless, that'll never stop,
As each of us fall it will never drop
Until we get justice, until prisoners are released,
Until we all have food, until we have peace,
Until we can even hope for these things
Without believing that greatness is what conflict brings,
Until we don't need a leader any more
And it's automatic that we don't get ignored

Yes, let's cheer for him as he begins
Yes, Obama, we're the ones who made you win
Yes, we don't really need you
Yes, we can make you come through
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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It's hard to stop a global capitalism

A short meditation on a corporate history page.

I haven't blogged in almost a month because I've been absorbed in projects that, while worthy, would be highly boring to write about. One of them was revamping the interfaces to data for RTK NET, which new interfaces should be released in a month or so. The other has been going through a list of 3,000 or so polluting facilities to see who owns them, for PERI's Toxic 100 project.

That last one had its moments. I must have looked at almost a thousand corporate Web sites to see whether a particular name was a subsidiary, an independent company, a holding company for something else, etc. That's always useful, because the companies that are shady and don't want to admit who owns them can be noted down as probable bad actors. One of the forthright companies provided a punch-drunk laugh -- I wouldn't have thought it was funny if I hadn't just gone through hundreds of them -- at any rate, here comes heating and air conditioning company Trane. Their corporate history page could be taken as a template for every company's page: the history going back "about a century", the lone founder, the struggle to build up a coherent, folksy story around whatever surviving corporate fragment this is. And then there's the triumphant tale of Trane's separation from its surrounding conglomerate:

On Nov. 28, 2007 we successfully completed a plan announced the previous February to separate the three American Standard businesses, leaving each free to concentrate exclusively on the markets it knows best. . Over the course of the year WABCO was spun off as an independent corporation and Bath and Kitchen was sold to Bain Capital Partners. On Nov. 28th American Standard Companies changed its name to Trane, with its stock trading under the new symbol "TT". Our new name reflects our business focus and our leadership in providing integrated heating, ventilation and air conditioning services and solutions.

New chapters in our history of growth through innovation are being written every working day. Our momentum continues to build because -- as our people have said for years -- "it's hard to stop a Trane."

Inspiring slogan, huh? But then there was a single sentence, added right after that -- I can no longer quote it because the page has been modified since, and a copy doesn't seem to have been saved. "On June 5, 2008, global diversified industrial company Ingersoll Rand acquired Trane." Luckily no one was there to see me laugh, or wonder why I thought it was funny. Nothing stops the train of global capital. Trane lasted for about half a year being free to concentrate exclusively on the market it knew best, and then someone else swallowed them up.

Of course they couldn't leave the page that way. The end of the text has now has been refocused into their acquisition "furthering its transformation into a multi-brand commercial products manufacturer serving customers in diverse global markets, and away from the capital-intense, heavy-machinery profile of its past." Wow, that heavy-machinery train that they were trying to talk up -- where did it go? All that is solid melts into air. The text has gone from a heroic-unstoppable mode to a familial-comfort one:

"With Trane now part of the family, Ingersoll Rand is better able to provide products, services and solutions to enhance the quality and comfort in homes and buildings, and enable companies and their customers to create progress."

New chapters in Trane's history of growth through innovation are being written every working day. Now as part of Ingersoll Rand, our momentum continues to build because - as our people have said for years - "it's hard to stop a Trane."

Their momentum continues to build -- embedded within something larger, something not under their control? The toy train goes around and around the play set...

The history of writing about capital is full of stories about trains, from Marx down to, say, Iron Council. This tiny little tragicomedy was just too perfect.

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