Monday, June 15, 2009

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

A piece on Adam Roberts' book Yellow Blue Tibia.

"What do you think, Richard? Have the reviewers written useful things about this book?"

"Not that I've seen. Even Clute seemed to go through the ostensible plot, put in a few graceful adjectives--"

"Don't be so quick to say that you know about what you don't. "

"Not that again, John. OK, if we're going to talk about this, let's assume that anyone reading this knows what the book is about, doesn't care about being 'spoiled', doesn't need a plot summary..."

"All right."

"What struck me, right from the start -- you remember the scene where one of the Soviet SF writers is explaining to another that he's plagiarized all his work from Western European or American SF?"


"One of the titles of his plagiarized works was The Grasshopper Lies Heavy."

"OK, that's amusing. I'd guess that most SF readers would recognize that as the name of the book within a book in PKD's The Man in the High Castle. But so what?"

"So what? At first I thought, funny, so the writer within the book plagiarized PKD and used one of his titles. But he can't have, because the conversation happens when Stalin was alive and PKD didn't publish that until 1962. So the writer can't have copied PKD."

"So it's a little joke by Adam Roberts to the reader."

"No! This is a book in which one of the characters later refers to the page count by which he met one of the other characters. It's steeped in ... in ... casual metatextuality. What's the point of it?"

"I don't know, but I think you're going to tell me. Does it have to have a point?"

"Yes! It's a book about fiction, about fiction creating reality, and it's chock-full of references to famous postmodern books. Later on, there's a cop interview scene, and many reviewers wrote appreciatively about the humor in how the cop keeps turning his tape recorder on during the times when it should be off and vice versa. It's funny, sure. But he introduces himself with 'My name is Zembla'!"

"Hmm. Pale Fire was also published in 1962. But this conversation was taking place in 1986. You'd think the protagonist might have recognized the name of the cop as being something from a famous literary work."

"Maybe Soviet censorship kept it out of Russia. Maybe he didn't read anything since he gave up writing. But yeah, there's a bit too much of that; it risks making the characters look too provincial, as if they don't know about the wide world of literature, yet aren't shown as having countervailing knowledge of their own writing that's really worth knowing."

"Can you get back to the point?"

"All right. Look, I read the book while I had a fever of 101 degrees F."

"Perhaps not the best time --"

"Yeah, yeah. So I missed a lot, I'm sure. But I"m pretty sure that Gravity's Rainbow popped up in a reference to ghost rockets, there was probably something from Borges -- or there should have been -- and there were low-culture references too, in that high/low culture blend that's one of the other postmodern signatures. The male Scientologist character is a safety inspector for nuclear power plants. In other words, he has Homer Simpson's job."

"Overreading a bit, maybe."

"There's an argument a lot like the Monty Python 'How to have an argument' sketch. But all right. The two main drivers of the action are the protagonist and the other surviving one of the original group of SF writers, who has become a KGB agent. The KGB agent keeps coming back to the protagonist and insisting on having this pointless discussion with him about whether the protagonist believes in UFOs. And the protagonist -- despite being called, derisively, an ironist who doesn't believe in anything -- keeps coming back, obsessively, in little bits towards the beginning of chapters, to the idea of binary valuation. That there either are UFOs, or there aren't. And he's pretty clearly skeptical about UFOs."

"So if the KGB guy wants to actually convince him, why not show him convincing evidence?"

"I don't know. Maybe he doesn't want to -- or maybe he can't produce it. The KGB guy is a brutal killer and defender of the fading Communist regime who turns out to be right about everything, by the way. The UFOs turn out to really exist, within the book -- as far as we can trust unreliable narration. But they work by using multiple quantum realities, so binary thinking is inappropriate, so, I guess the KGB guy is right there too. And they seem to be malign, so he's justified in trying to warn and mobilize the world about them, you'd think, even if he thinks that would also work to prop up the regime."

"Justified in causing the deaths of thousands due to Chernobyl?"

"Well, let's not go down that path, either. But here's the problem of the book. The UFO believers are all more or less kooks. The Americans involved are Scientologists, and Scientologists have a special relationship to this subject. There we have a religion created by an SF writer whose most famous supposed quote is 'You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.'"

"Who knows whether he really said it?"

"Yes, who knows? It can be blurred -- everything can be blurred. Have you heard of right-wing postmodernism?"

"Oh, not this again."

"Come on, one more time. At the historical time and place in which I'm writing this -- U.S.A., 2009 -- we've just emerged from the Bush years, a time of unbridled right-wing postmodernism. One of the core elements of those years were that it didn't matter whether anything was true as long as people believed it to be true. Their belief created reality. And -- here is the particularly right-wing part -- since people in power controlled belief through mass media, people in power thought that they controlled reality."

"We saw how well that worked."

"Yes. You go along nicely until you slam into a wall."

"So what does that have to do with Yellow Blue Tibia?"

"It makes it -- difficult, I think -- to read the book for its strengths, for me, at this place, at this time. Perhaps this is an English/American difference? Look, this is a very good book in many ways. The excellent, wry dialogue, for instance, that I've clumsily copied the form but not the feel or the style of. The characterization. The initial conceit. But its ending -- love is what's important, uncertainty doesn't really have to be resolved -- just feels wrong for this time."

"But uncertainty of that sort is a tool of the aliens, who are depicted as malign."

"I guess so. But the people against them are so hopelessly doomed by history on the Soviet side, or representative of what I see as a bad part of American culture -- the disbelievers in whatever they don't want to believe, whether that's consensus history about Waco or UFOs or 9/11 or global warming or the Holocaust --"

"Hey! Godwin!"

"I guess it works if you talk to yourself long enough, too."

"Hmm. But aren't there hints the aliens are really supporting the KGB guy with their technology? He takes a fall of four stories, lands on his head, and lives, though with brain damage. Isn't that really only possible if they saved his life in the same way that they saved the protagonist's from being shot? That would mean that the aliens want there to be people against them who are unsympathetic, perhaps so that people won't believe them."

"Maybe so. I don't know. Or maybe it's some kind of reference to "major character protection" -- the way the main villain in a fiction can't ever just die. But let me get back to the thread, if anyone is still following it. Look, this is a good book. But it's the wrong book for me, right now. I suspect that what I need -- what SF needs, if I'm going to generalize my preferences -- is something like what the younger Iain Banks wrote (and hey, may write again). Something from China Mieville in a more confident mood about whether he can depict society after the revolution. Something that overreaches, because the author believes. Where they make all the appropriate writerly gestures towards there maybe being two sides to the story, or more, but in the end you know there really isn't."

"Isn't that a rather childish desire? Getting back to the grandiose, triumphialist SF that Roberts identifies with Stalin (and see The Iron Dream, etc.)?"

"It depends what it's in service of. A sort of leftist humanism? I don't see how that really goes along with genocide... of course, some might differ. But basically, I think that *literary* postmodernism took a big hit from the Bush years, at least in the U.S. Those references start to seem as dated as the Soviet culture in the book. SF, now, has to reawaken to post-post-modernism. Maybe that's what the book means."

"And you missed it because of your fever? You've gone on a really long time nevertheless."

"Oh well. What do you have to say about the book?"

"That it's an amusing book that people should read."

"That's it?"

"And it's also kind of funny that Jodi Dean, someone who parenthetically used to take a generally opposing view on literary-theoretical matters from those on The Valve, a site that Adam Roberts writes on, wrote a book about exactly this subject. Her book was called Aliens in America and it examined belief in UFOs from a postmodern viewpoint without (as far as I know) taking a position on whether the belief was really 'true' or not. Adam Roberts doesn't show any sign of knowledge of the existence of this book within Yellow Blue Tibia, so it's probably a coincidence."

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

2007 TRI released

The latest version of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) came out on the 19th, with RTK Net's version open a day later. This year, RTK NET's version also supplies RSEI risk screening numbers -- for the first time, an at least partial answer to the question "How important is this particular release of pollution, anyways?"

EPA continued its recent trend of downplaying the data release. I don't think that they announced they'd be releasing it far in advance -- I had to find out about it through the grapevine after it was already up. I didn't see much news about it, and the news there was was unspecific. For instance, the overall release trend was down, but PCB releases jumped 40%. Why? According to this story, for one example, "EPA said that the jump was probably due to disposal of old equipment or clean up at industrial sites." Probably? The vast majority of the increase seems to be due to one site, Chemical Waste Management in Emelle, Alabama. Why not call that facility and get the actual cause for the jump? That's one of the things that would change this from a contextless, uninvestigated number into a story that people could begin to understand.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Open Letter to the DNC's "Organizing for America"

Dear DNC:

Why should I participate in "Organizing for America?"

That isn't a rhetorical question. My spouse received an Organizing for America pitch in the mail today, and I've read it. It tells me that the organization's mission will be to advance President Obama's legislative agenda, and to continue building the grassroots organization started during the Obama campaign.

But Obama's legislative agenda appears to be on its way towards success or failure without me. Specifically, health care reform and global climate change have both had a small group of "centrist" Democratic Senators write that they are unwilling to let them be attached to vehicles that require only 50 votes, and instead wish to let them be filibustered. If so, that means that they are almost certain not to become law. Is "Organizing for America" going to be a vehicle towards enforcing party discipline on those Senators? If not, what good is it?

President Obama has often said that he wants bipartisan solutions. I am a partisan. I do not want bipartisan solutions, not when one side is still fully committed to the failed beliefs of the Bush years. Why should I participate?

Or, to put it another way, President Obama made all sorts of concessions to the right and to the center on the recent stimulus bill. These concessions weakened the bill to the point where it will probably be ineffective as stimulus, and did not succeed politically in getting any GOP votes in the House, and only three in the Senate. Would my work be wasted and go towards similarly ineffective concessions?

If so, bluntly, what's in it for the liberals and the left? The centrists and the right held up laws that would be good for the country in order to pursue their own petty interests. As a result, their concerns were not ignored. The liberals and the left went along, and were ignored. What is President Obama going to do for his base? Is he going to announce an investigation into Bush-era war crimes? Go ahead and nationalize AIG? Perhaps reverse his shameful opinion that detainees at Bagram have no right to challenge their detention? Stop allowing his deputies to try to preserve the existing, dysfunctional banking system? Support a stronger push against climate change, rather than a relatively ineffective and easily gamed market-ideology cap-and-trade scheme?

And why is the pitch so one-way in an organizational sense? The mail that I saw didn't try to pull people into any genuinely netroots-style peer-to-peer effort. There was a pro forma URL listed -- -- and a request for an Email address. The program mentioned was one of house meetings and gathering stories -- the sort of thing easily controlled centrally by the DNC. The materials repeat the false, Republican-framed claim that "Change doesn't come from Washington"': if people are supposed to take that seriously, why is this being controlled from Washington?

I invite anyone to answer. There's not much at stake: only a hundred or so dollars from me, and whatever volunteer efforts I can muster. But that's proportionally more than I've seen I've seen the DNC or the Obama administration put into this effort. Why does this deserve my support?


Rich Puchalsky
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Friday, March 13, 2009

So much for TRI's expanded Form A

As mentioned in an article here, the return of the Toxic Release Inventory's Form A to its older reporting levels -- back to 500 pounds instead of 2000 pounds of releases, if you don't want to get technical about it -- was attached to the spending bill and signed into law. It was pretty much a race between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches to see who would get this one first after Bush left.

If you do want to get technical about it, then this particular Post article, like almost all news articles that I know something about, is misleading. A sentence reads "The legislation restores the standard established by law in 1986, compelling all facilities to inform the public of any chemical releases that total 500 pounds a year or more, lowering the 2,000-pound threshold Bush had adopted." I could see not mentioning that it was actually two thresholds that were affected (one for releases and the other for waste generated). But the standard was never set by law, in 1986 or anytime else. The law leaves it up to EPA to set a reasonable standard. That's why the threshold can change in the first place. The older Form A level, which is what we're returning to, didn't even exist at all within the law as passed in 1986 -- it was added to TRI for 1995.

Pink Triangle

Listening to a classical-strings cover of Weezer's song Pink Triangle -- used as a perfect life-stages-going-by tune -- I looked back at the lyrics to the original. It's a song in which the narrator sees a girl, falls in love, imagines marrying her, and oh noes sees she has a pink triangle on. The narrator apparently isn't able to recognize that his interest in her was as an anima figure. (The guy who wrote the song mentioned, in an interview, that this actually happened to him and he found out later that she was just wearing the triangle to show support. But of course, as he didn't say in the interview, he didn't really care about her as an actual person.)

So, that's the background for what follows. The poetry group that I read to thought it was funny, anyways. This is the second recent poem in which Silliman figures as symbol of "real poetry"; reading through his link lists must be a good carrier for his aesthetics.

Pink Triangle

When I'm filled with what I've heard
I start looking around for words
Time to pay poetic rent
Maybe I'll read The New Sentence
But when I start to feel that pull
I'm just pulling off myself
My inspiration's left unsaid
Though she lives inside my head

My muse is a lesbian
Arrangements didn't go like they should
She and I are married in my mind
But poems in my mind are no good

At least we can still be friends
Though she'll sit down and pretend
Wishing she had Patti Smith
But muses don't choose who they're with
When we're feeling bad and down
Then we'll laugh and joke around
Sometimes she'll smile and touch my hand
It's all that she can really stand

My muse is a lesbian
My poetry is always third-rate
Every poem that I like is queer
Why can I only write them straight?

Knew the day was coming that
I'd get middle-aged and fat
You need youth to be emo
Going on is how it goes
I'd rather be like Bowie
Sam Pickwick's the guy I see
Since I can't be inspired
I'll do parodies until I'm tired

My muse is a lesbian
And when we have to pass on
We'll kiss and have one final sing
Of Mr. Toad's Last Little Song
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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Obama one month in

One month into Obama's term, I'd say that things are going pretty much exactly as I expected. He's signed a number of relatively costless initiatives like SCHIP that were all but passed except for Presidential veto, affirmed Bush-era imprisonment and trial policies for people at e.g. Bagram prison, avoided nationalizing banks that need to be nationalized, and gotten through a stimulus package that benefits mostly Obama. Why that last? Because it doesn't benefit actual voters to have a bucket of money thrown at bailing out the system, not when that's only getting us out of trouble that the system got us into in the first place. It helps Obama to not have a Depression during his term, but for the rest of us, the help is rather like the kind of help you get when someone tells you "your money or your life" and you give them your money -- it's better not to lose your life, but that's hardly help. Meanwhile, Obama got the stimulus package through with politically valueless concessions that severely reduced its effectiveness, plus what should be recognized by now as his signature move, a completely gratuitous culture-war slam at his backers for just the possibility of political benefit (by which I mean what he did with money for contraception).

My inaugural poem is holding up well. I still think, of course, that Obama is vastly better than McCain would have been, probably better than Hillary Clinton would have been. But the progressive reaction to the stimulus plan was laughable. "Why isn't Obama calling on us to help push this through?" It was like Boxer in Animal Farm asking plaintively why they weren't letting him work harder. The reaction should have been to threaten to sabotage the stimulus package through pressure on a sympathetic Senator or two unless Obama bought them off with more progressive elements in it. He would have understood that perfectly well. As the poem says, my hope for change rests on that Obama is actually going to need the left for the last few votes to get past the GOP, and the left is going to wake up and start using that leverage.

At least there's $100 million in the stimulus for lead paint removal. That will do some good.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


On reading a funny Adam Roberts review of Anathem, full of parody neologisms, I was struck (in the comment box) with the idea of the yawnpiphany. In some seriousness, that's the best name I've yet been able to think of for a certain New Wave SF writing technique.

It goes like this. Let's say that you want to rebel against the tired old forms of SF. In some sense, you want to be literary. But you're also rebelling against literariness itself; you don't want to merely imitate Modernist classics or join in the forming post-modernism. You want something that is a specifically SF form of iconoclasm.

That means that formal innovation is probably out. SF never had any sort of advanced formalism to reject. What SF had are "ideas" and adventure. So the best rebellion is a long-drawn-out attempt to bore the reader. Not by simply writing a bad book -- anyone could do that. But instead a purposeful, skillful repetition of the same thing over and over until the reader has a yawnpiphany that makes it impossible for them to see standard SF quite in the same way anymore.

Yes, Waiting for Godot has been done. But I think that there is a specifically SF form of this. I wrote about this a bit when considering Brian Aldiss' Hothouse, a novel of anti-ideas. A better example is his Report on Probability A, an anti-novel. But I don't feel up to considering that book at the length it deserves yet. So I'll just mention it -- there's a bit about it in the post on Hothouse -- along with two other candidate works that I immediately thought of: Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream and Michael Moorcock's Pyat Quartet.

The Iron Dream is a work that I can't seem to convince anyone else of the importance of. It's structured as a laugh, an "oh, that's clever", a long grind, and a yell. I keep thinking that people who think that it's good but not great somehow don't appreciate the long grind. The laugh is the splash page from the publisher at the beginning, which says how popular the author of The Iron Dream, Adolph Hitler, is with SF fans and how his costumes are special favorites at SF conventions. The "oh, that's clever" is the first chapter, in which the protagonist, in a dead-on savaging of every Golden Age SF trope, sets out to save the pure humans via necessary genocide against the wholly evil mind-controlling twisted mutants. The yell at the end is the afterword by a supposed critic of the book. But it's the long grind that gets undervalued. By the end of the first chapter, you've realized that the book is an SF adventure story that recapitulates the real Hitler's actual rise to power. It goes on and on as he and his followers rejoice homoerotically as they wipe out the evil mutants and the mutant-lovers, and there's a real temptation to just skip a few chapters, since, after all, you've gotten the idea.

But you can't. Reading the same thing over and over, you start to realize -- or at least I started to realize; I don't really know whether anyone else reacts similarly -- just how often you've read the same thing over and over, better concealed, in real SF. I've referred to this as "strapping your inner fanboy down Clockwork Orange style." You know intellectually what point Spinrad is making after the first chapter, but you don't feel it, in your gut, until a point somewhere near the end. This is the yawnpiphany.

Or there's the example of the Moorcock Pyat series. I've only actually managed to make it through the first one of these books, myself. I've never read a more determined attempt to make a wholly unsympathetic protagonist. (There's a good review here). Pyat is a cocaine-fueled self-hating ultra-right schemer whose only talent, as he goes through the 20th century, is to con people into having sex with him, and to fool others and himself into thinking that he is capable of SF engineering feats which, of course, fail. He lurches from one country to another, getting involved in every fascist movement going, and escaping each one badly used and having badly used others. This might seem like a shockarama, and at the beginning perhaps it is. But it's the same thing over and over. By the middle of the first book, I was flipping pages forward, thinking that OK, I've learned all there is to learn from this horrible unreliable narrator. Is there anything more?

Again, this is intended, I believe, as a source of the yawnpiphany for every historic-fantasy-adventure book, most particularly Moorcock's own. It's the kind of thing where I can describe the idea of the book, and you the reader can think that you get it, but you can't really get it until you've pushed past the point of boredom and said, "Wow! This is really quite like..." which is when your boredom becomes identified with the slight boredom that you felt when reading, say, the middle of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and its strangely cute crypto-authoritarianism. Which is not a bad book, but that's the point of the yawnpiphany; at its best, it can change your whole reading of a subgenre.

At any rate, that's it for the yawnpiphany. Most of my ideas on SF, like it, are dialogically half-formed out of comment boxes, a process of uncertain value. But anyone still reading this far should really check out this really amusing post by John Holbo about the philosophical thought experiment of Lewd and Prude, complete with some fanfic I wrote in the comment box. That's really what blogging should be about.
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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Wait a minute -- literal or figurative volcano?"

That was how I answered the beginnings of the phone call. In this case, yes, it's literal: there's a volcano threatening to go off at Mount Redoubt in Alaska which could possibly once again (as it did a couple of decades ago) affect the Drift River Oil Terminal, a set of storage tanks that usually stores hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil. Chevron refuses to release information about how much oil they have left at the facility, citing Homeland Security concerns. There's a good article on it here.

How is this possibly homeland security information? Everyone already knows where the facility is, has pictures of it, and knows how much oil it generally holds. What Chevron doesn't want to release is information about how much oil it holds right now, now that they've pumped some of the oil out in response to the volcano building up nearby. Of course they have all sorts of economic motives to leave as much oil as possible there and risk it, and people concerned about the environment have opposite motives to push them to get the oil out of the river's floodplain. I don't understand how they even can claim a concern about terrorism without everyone laughing at them.

This is not the first time that terrorism has been claimed as a concern in order to avoid the release of chemical accident information. On the contrary, that started even before 9/11 -- even as industry managed to have its politicians avoid making any requirements that they actually do anything to reduce accident risk. I've worked with this kind of thing for a long time, which is why I got the call in the first place. This may be a good test of Obama's new FOIA policy. It really comes down to one of two alternatives. If the government knows what Chevron is doing to prepare for this volcano, then that information should be FOIA-able. And if it doesn't know, why not?

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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