End mail delivery?

The U.S. Postal Service is having financial problems again and is proposing higher postage feeds and cutting out Saturday deliveries.  What, though, do you get in your mail these days?  In an age of e-mails and electronic banking, do we even need snail mail anymore?  Yes, we need delivery of packages for what we order online–something done profitably by Fed-Ex and UPS–so why not make that the business of the USPS, with those who still send paper correspondence paying for them as little packages?  Or why not let the government-subsidized post offices go out of business and let the private companies do it all?  Here is a proposal and rationale:

The Postal Service projects deficits of $238 billion — roughly the current gross domestic product of Portugal — through 2020. Raising rates slightly and reducing delivery would make tiny dents — and that’s the best possible outcome; in the worst, the changes would accelerate the service’s problems. Meanwhile, the debate obscures the fact that digital communications are fast eliminating the need for mail delivery.

To understand what could happen to the Postal Service, look at Kodak, whose 130-year history includes the kind of dominance that USPS long enjoyed. Even as the long-term threat from digital photography became clear in the 1990s, Kodak temporized. It tinkered with its traditional film, paper and chemicals businesses, never acknowledging that digital would all but eliminate them. Kodak continually predicted growth, even as it fell from being one of the most profitable companies in the world to one that’s essentially worthless.

The Postal Service, too, is looking at the future as a variant of the present. USPS, convinced of the long-term need for physical mail delivery, has been relying on increases in volume, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in April. Yet delivery volume for first-class mail fell 22 percent from 1998 through 2007, tumbled an additional 13 percent last year and was down 3 percent in the first half of this year despite heavy mailings from the Census Bureau.

Step one in avoiding Kodak’s fate is for the Postal Service to acknowledge that its future will have almost no connection to the present. Anything that can be conceived of as information will, in time, be sent electronically. The Internet is faster, cheaper and more convenient for the sender and the receiver.

E-mail has already supplanted letters, but that’s just the start. More people will send money via PayPal or other electronic services rather than mail checks. As is increasingly the case, people will download their movies and books, check their bills online, receive information about their investments electronically, and so on.

USPS’s future lies in things that need to be delivered physically: shoes, computers and other objects. On those items, the Internet can’t compete, and USPS has assets that could let it take on UPS and FedEx (which, unencumbered by USPS’s declining business, are in splendid shape; UPS reported Thursday that its second-quarter profit had nearly doubled, to $845 million, from a year earlier).

via Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui – How the U.S. Postal Service can save itself.

No more secrets

Last week the Washington Post outed thousands of top-secret security agencies, to the point of publishing an on-line map so that they can be located.  Now an online group WikiLeaks has released thousands of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan:

U.S. and Pakistani officials are condemning the publication of leaked documents that are said to be secret U.S. military files about the Afghanistan war.

The website WikiLeaks posted tens of thousands of documents online Sunday, and said it has another 15,000 documents that will be released “as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.”  It says the files cover the period between January 2004 and December 2009.

White House National Security Advisor James Jones issued a statement calling the leaks “irresponsible,” saying they not only put the lives of Americans and their partners at risk, but also threaten national security.

The leaked documents are said to include records detailing raids carried out by a secretive U.S. special operations unit against what U.S. officials call “high-value” insurgent and terrorist targets.  Some of the raids are said to have resulted in unintended killings of Afghan civilians.

Also included are documents allegedly describing U.S. fears that Pakistan’s intelligence service was aiding the Afghan insurgency.

Jones said WikiLeaks made no effort to contact the U.S. government, which learned about the release from news organizations.  Those include The New York Times, London’s Guardian newspaper and the German weekly Der Spiegel.

via Thousands of ‘Secret’ Afghan War Files Released on Internet | News | English.

It is certainly difficult to keep secrets in the age of the internet.  Should we just accept all of this “transparency” and embrace a totally free marketplace of information?  Of course, the exposure of government secrets simply follows the exposure of personal secrets that the internet also makes possible.  Do we need to find a way to allow for both individual privacy and national security secrets, or do we just need to find a way to live with the new information environment?

Power outage

Our electricity went out yesterday from 3:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. Was it the North Koreans? Our area’s top-secret agencies? An infrastructure attack on our area’s top-secret agencies? No. Apparently it was just trees that blew over because of a quick storm we had. But how fragile we are. I couldn’t get on the internet, watch television, watch movies, play games, write, read. We cooked out on the grill, lit some paraffin lamps we have, and visited. I guess that’s what they did in the 19th century. But no air conditioning! Anyway, we are way too dependent on technology. And yet, I don’t know what can be done about it at this point.

Trains

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 – USATODAY.com.

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?