I rode trains in Europe, including a 200 mph bullet-train between Cologne and Frankfort, taking me right to the airport on a ride smooth as an airplane, reducing a two-and-a-half hour drive to  one hour.  Why can’t the USA have a good train system?  Well, we do.  But it’s geared for carrying freight.  And, as this article shows, freight trains and passenger trains, especially these new highspeed jobs, just don’t mix:

U.S. trains may not be the best at moving people, but they’re great at moving everything else. More than 40 percent of U.S. freight miles are done by rail, compared with less than 15 percent in Europe, according to Christopher Barkan, a professor who heads the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In terms of carbon footprint, that’s a great statistic. The railroad industry likes to brag that it can carry a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of diesel — three times better than a truck can do — but even that is just an average. Some freight lines manage 517 miles.

The problem is that freight track and high-speed track are built with completely different considerations in mind, making it difficult for a country to maintain both a world-class freight network and a first-rate passenger system.

Freight track is familiar to most Americans. The two steel rails are connected by hardwood crosses, known as ties to railroad aficionados. A bed of crushed stone, called ballast, undergirds the ties. This arrangement is extremely durable, and it needs to be. Freight trains weigh several times as much as their high-speed, passenger-carrying cousins. A fully loaded freight car weighs about 150 tons, compared with just 42 tons for the average car in a French high-speed train and even less in Japan.

Freight track can take the punishment of rumbling freight trains for decades with little maintenance, but that doesn’t mean the track doesn’t experience little changes. The wheels push out against the rails, increasing the gauge. (That’s the distance between the rails.) Other forces tend to create horizontal waves or vertical ripples along the track.

Curved sections are a special problem. Think of a NASCAR track. The road is banked around the curves, with the outside of the track higher than the inside to prevent the cars from sliding into the wall. Engineers do the same thing with curved train tracks. In sections where the tracks are banked, the train’s weight falls more heavily on the inside rail. Over time, it drops lower than it should, making the tracks uneven.

A stout freight train, which typically cruises along at about 60 mph, can handle those changes in track conditions. But modern passenger trains that streak over rails at more than 200 mph can’t. Everything has to be precise, or the train could derail with disastrous results.

Most high-speed passenger trains travel along a completely different medium called slab track, in which the rails are bolted into sections of concrete. The concrete holds the rails still, assuring safe travel at high speeds, but it simply can’t handle the tonnage of a freight train. It’s also extremely expensive to build, about 50 percent more than typical freight tracks.

The layout of our tracks is also a major problem. U.S. rails run across roadways at lots of places. Because a collision between a car and a super-fast train would be catastrophic for everyone involved, high-speed rail simply cannot cross roadways.

Our system of rails is also way too curvy for high speeds. Because 19th-century transit engineers didn’t envision trains traveling much more than 60 mph, they built lots of bends into the tracks. High-speed trains have to slow down substantially to negotiate even a banked curve. But in order to straighten out track around population centers — precisely the places where high-speed rail is needed — government would have to extensively use its power of eminent domain to take private property, which would be expensive and politically unpopular.

via Stimulus funds give high-speed rail a kick in the caboose.

Land of the Freon

Although I had a good time in France and Germany and came to appreciate their people, their culture, and their history, I have to say that the experience also helped me to appreciate even more what America stands for and what makes America great. And what America stands for and what makes America great, among other things, is air-conditioning!

They just don’t have air-conditioning much in Europe. The stores don’t. The restaurants don’t (which explains the sidewalk cafes). The houses and apartments don’t. At one point, I splurged on a rather nice hotel in Germany, and it didn’t have air-conditioning either. Maybe the Europeans are hardier than us Yanks, or at least closer to nature. But it sure got hot.

An enterprising salesman who could sell refrigerators to the Eskimos could surely sell air-conditioning units to the Europeans and make a fortune. In fact, air-conditioning Europe could solve our balance of trade problem, as well as helping with unemployment and getting the U.S. economy going again.

Also, screens. You open the window and you experience the outside directly. I heard an Eric Hoffer interview in which he said that nature is harsher in the New World than in the Old. They don’t seem to have so many mosquitos and other things you would want to screen out.

Then again, Europeans have things that Americans don’t. Two-hour lunch breaks, in France; castles; gothic cathedrals.

How the internet affects the brain

More on the prospect that the internet makes us dumber.  In this case, by rewiring our brains:

Nicholas Carr, a veteran writer about technology, is not sanguine about what he learned about his own Internet-infused brain, much less my brain.

“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?” he asks. His answer, iterated throughout this often repetitive but otherwise excellent book: “The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just like it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

Carr cites numerous studies to delineate not only the impact on the brain, but also the alterations in brain biology that lead to the impact. It turns out the human brain is a shape shifter, the technical term being “neuroplasticity.” The phenomenon is not easy to explain, but Carr is adept at explaining with as little jargon as possible. “As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

It is not enough for Carr to explain the contemporary brain alterations linked to regular Internet use. He puts neuroplasticity into historical context. He explains how the evolution of a written alphabet, accompanied by development of a standardized syntax (the order of words within a phrase or sentence) altered the human brain. A big difference exists neurologically, it seems, between hearing a story and reading a story on a page.

Reading became more efficient. Readers became more attentive. “To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to ‘lose oneself’ in the pages of a book,” according to Carr. Developing that sort of discipline evolved slowly. Because of the Internet, that evolution is halting and apparently reversing.

Sure, Internet users are literate, and highly developed literacy will not disappear. But, Carr notes, in meshing hard science with his personal experience circa 2010, “The world of the screen … is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted.”

via ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr: The Internet warps you –

The book cites numerous scientific studies to back up the thesis.  I know some of you think I am too dismissive of the findings of modern science, being skeptical of a lot of the climate change alarmism, among other things.  I find myself skeptical of this claim also.  Are you?  If so, what basis do you have for your opinion?  If not, should we ban the internet, at least for young people with their developing brains?

Selling a little too soon

A cautionary tale about being too cautious:

[Ron] Wayne, 76, was present at the birth of cool April 1, 1976: Co-founder, along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, of Apple Computer Inc., Wayne designed the company’s original logo, wrote the manual for the Apple I computer and drafted the fledgling company’s partnership agreement.

That agreement gave him a 10 percent stake in Apple, which would be worth more than $22 billion today if Wayne had held onto it.

But he didn’t.

Afraid that Jobs’ wild spending and Wozniak’s recurrent “flights of fancy” would cause Apple to flop, Wayne said, he bailed out after 12 days. Terrified to be the only one of the three founders with assets creditors could seize, he agreed to take $800 for his shares.

via Jobs, Wozniak and Wayne: Apple’s third co-founder sold out early, but says he doesn’t second-guess himself –

HT: Joe Carter

If we caused global warming, we can cool it down

The Washington Post reviews two  Books on geoengineering: ‘How to Cool the Planet’ and ‘Hacking the Planet’.  The idea is that since human beings have caused global warming, we can put other stuff into the environment to cool the planet down:

As the prospect of drastic warming evolves from worst-case scenario to virtual certainty, the notion of some kind of technological quick fix is more and more appealing. It’s still in the speculative stages, but it has already produced two highly unsettling books.

Among the ideas that have been broached is dumping various odd substances into the sea, such as iron filings (to promote growth of CO2-consuming plankton) and — no kidding — Special K cereal, which would supposedly increase the sea’s reflectivity, thus keeping it cooler. One of the least crazy possible methods is the Pinatubo Option, in which we would somehow cloak the Earth’s atmosphere in a layer of reflective particles, which would block the sun and cool the planet just enough to maintain some kind of climatic equilibrium. . . .

As the climate heats up, and if scientists’ predictions of scary, sudden changes come true, such options are going to look more attractive. Especially the Pinatubo Option: We could scatter particles into the stratosphere with a fleet of high-altitude planes, for the (relatively) low price of a few billion dollars. Or, as another scientist has suggested, we could seed the stratosphere via miles and miles of hoses, held aloft by blimps and spraying tiny particles into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Other scientists have looked at methods of “cloud brightening,” with much the same goal.

The reviewer and these books, while raising the possibility of creating even greater climactic disasters, are taking this prospect in dead earnest.  They apparently do not consider their solutions ludicrous.  (Putting Special K cereal into the ocean?  We’re having enough problems with British Petroleum, but we want Kellogg’s to do the same thing?)

I guess those who think human beings are so powerful with all of their technology that they can destroy the world also assume human beings are powerful enough with all of their technology to  fix the world.  Some of us, though, believe human beings are far more limited in their power, both for worse and for better.

Apple vs. Porn

Steve Jobs, the mind behind Apple computing, is making a stand against pornography, even though that happens to be one of the online world’s biggest business!  Comments from Pete at Grace-City:

Jobs has argued that he wants his portable computer devices to not sell or stock pornography.

When a critic emailed him to say that this infringed his freedoms, Jobs emailed back and told him to buy a different type of computer.

Steve Jobs is a fan of Bob Dylan. So one customer emailed him to ask how Dylan would feel about Jobs’ restrictions of customers’ freedoms.

The CEO of Apple replied to say that he values:

“Freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’ and some traditional PC folks feel their world is slipping away. It is.”

The interlocuter replied:

“I don’t want ‘freedom from porn.’ Porn is just fine! And I think my wife would agree.”

In the most revealing line, Steve Jobs dismissed the critic thus:

“You might care more about porn when you have kids.”

Pause for a moment and consider what the above emails represent.

The CEO of one of the wealthiest, most successful international companies, responds to the email of a customer. Business prospers on the mantra “The customer is always right.” Business wants the customers’ money.

But in this case, over the moral issue of pornography, Jobs is happy to tell customers to buy a different product. He argues that children and innocence ought to be preserved – and that trumps the dollar.

Google (with their motto “Don’t be evil”) rake in billions through pornography. Ranks of employees spend their time categorising and arranging advertising for pornography. (I know, I spent some time discussing the difficulties posed to a Christian who worked in their UK HQ) Pornography is huge business, yet here is the CEO of Apple telling the pornography businesses to take their dollars elsewhere.

Now Steve Jobs cannot actually stop pornography being accessed on the devices he sells – indeed you can jailbreak a device and run any pirated software on it. Neither can he necessarily set the ethical bar as high as a Christian may want it – but what he is doing is significant and commendable. He is taking responsibility for doing what he can. He is trying to not profit from pornography. Those deeds are important for the sake of his own soul. Matthew 18:7 comes to mind: “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”

For the souls of other people, his public statements are valuable in that they permit consumers to identify with and commend his resistance to pornography. Our generation is saturated in pornography; a public statement from Steve Jobs resisting that, encourages others to believe that the secular-liberal-capitalist agenda is not the only show in town. Jobs’ comments are important for the manner in which they shape public cultural discourse.

via Grace City: Apple & Porn.