Sunday, August 31, 2008

feisty reader feedback

My story about Christmas Island went live today on Salon.com. This was the most unusual trip for me during a year that was packed with travel. Be sure to take a look at the comments following the article. This particular crop contains some curious ones--who knew Sarah Palin had so much to do with a former nukes testing site in the equatorial Pacific?--as well as some downright nasty ones. And it's still only Day 1.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

get on board

How can we not be talking about trains? In November, California voters will decide on a $9.9 billion bond to kick-start the nation’s first high-speed rail project. What a nutty idea: Invest in a passenger rail system worthy of an industrialized country. I wonder if Americans will go for it.


In the not-so-distant past, questioning the absence of high-speed, or at least mildly efficient, passenger rail in the US was mostly a matter of nationalist-brand jealousy: The Japanese, Koreans and Europeans have fast, sleek trains, and countries like China and India are investing heavily in this technology. Why not us? The old guard’s old math said that railway only competes with air travel when distances are less than 500 miles and travel time less than 3 hours. Because the US is a big place, travelers here often have to cover more than 500 miles. And while highway congestion irritates drivers in Seattle and Atlanta as much as in Paris and Osaka, cheap gas in the US meant driving was more palatable and affordable.


Kiss those days goodbye. Gas prices and airfares are killing us, as are worries about greenhouse gas emissions and continued dependence on oil purchased from countries not named Norway. At the same time, Americans are frustrated with the government-owned National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a.k.a. Amtrak. If it’s not delays, it’s bailouts, and if it’s not bailouts, it’s confusion as to why countries like England and Japan have successfully privatized railway, while we in the US have not. Americans want and need a better railway system, and Amtrak’s fairly quick but not exactly cutting-edge Acela is not going to cut it. (New Yorkers might hop on Acela for the occasional trip to D.C, and people love the light rail here in Portland, Ore., but America on the whole remains a nation of cars.) Meanwhile, websites such as High Speed Rail News read like a sci-fi newsletter. Yet it covers developments underway right now: magnetically levitating trains in Asia, new high-speed routes in Scandinavia, expanded service in Japan and Germany, and even a bullet train project in Argentina.


States and citizen coalitions are taking matters into their own hands. Once ignored regional proposals for more sophisticated railway systems are now seeing a surge of interest, most prominent of which is the California High-Speed Rail that would run from Sacramento to San Diego (connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles in a mere 2.5 hours), and which recently earned the support of the Governator. Other, admittedly smaller, initiatives are bubbling up as well, in Florida and the Southeast, as well as in the Midwest and Texas. But it’s not all about high speeds. Local governments and grassroots groups want improved service on existing lines, better light rail in urban areas, more R&D of next-gen technologies such as Personal Rapid Transit, and overall infrastructure investments that go beyond fortifying bridges in Minneapolis. Thomas Friedman put it well in a column a few months ago: “If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.”


The encouraging news is that we have the technical, and even political, capability to make efficient rail a reality. The US is an industry leader, at least when it comes to freight and manufacturing. True, the really-fast stuff is built elsewhere, but GE, for example, builds fuel-efficient locomotives for rail systems across the globe. As for the more delicate issue of expropriating land for new tracks, proponents of railway investment point to Eisenhower’s success with the Interstate Highway System. We needed it then, for automobiles and, so we thought, to move troops and weapons in the event of war with the Soviet Union. Now we are at war with ourselves, or more specifically with our car- and oil-addicted selves, not to mention the looming battle against global warming. How will we wage that war, and to what degree will trains be part of our strategy?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

stupidity & technology

Leonard Pitts Jr. had a column a few weeks ago that shares some DNA with my essay in this month's issue of Wired. Idiocracy, credulity, psuedoscience galore and more--much of this you have seen before, including the reflex to blame technology for society's ills, and the illness of American stupidity in particular. One of my favorite examples of recent memory: When Larry King hosted a special about autism and asked a panelist to confirm that Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man" is not autistic. For some reason, the moment struck me as something more than just a slip.

More on this later, though. I have to jet to jury duty.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

converse ads/graffiti update

Well that was quick. The ads are gone, following on the heels of local newspaper coverage. What's even better about the whole thing is that Nike owns Converse, which means that in a not-so-roundabout way, Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike is vandalizing the businesses of people who live not far from Nike HQ.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

guerrilla marketing on my street

A Pacific Northwest career-finder company called Jobdango was recently fined by the city of Portland for advertisements written out in chalk. (Someone had to go clean it up.) I don't know squat about marketing--my friend Paul Dervan does--but I do know that this guerrilla marketing stuff is nauseating.

I recently spotted some graffiti posing as "clever" ad/art, splashed across the side of a couple of buildings in my northeast Portland neighborhood. The company: Converse, as in the shoes.
It's amazing, really, that people can so easily convince themselves of uncool ideas, in this case the idea that defacing another person's property is somehow cool or, better still, "creative." I suppose I'm falling into Converse's trap by a.) discussing the ad strategy in the first place and b.) cutting and pasting one of the images, thus augmenting the company's overall Internet visibility, if only by a nano-ounce. After all, I'm sure some company whiz did the math and determined that the PR value of this campaign surpasses the cost of any fine(s) that Portland or other cities might levy. Still, sometimes griping feels good, and perhaps calling the company out on this garbage will at least hasten the cleanup.

In other miscellaneous news, a friend recently sent me a link to this article from the Daily Mail, about more liberal views on spelling, or at least one university lecturer's more liberal views on spelling. The rebellion, infinitesimal as it may seem, continues.

america at its best

Here's a short post that's slim on words and large on imagery. A wire story this week about the start of hurricane season was accompanied by a picture of a man and his dogs in Crystal Beach, Texas. Some recent travels to Egypt and Christmas Island made me think about just how wealthy and privileged we are here in the US. Nothing profound there; just a traveler's truism. But then I see images like this one, or visit an astoundingly clean and civilized place like Holland, or read about America's healthcare crisis, and I'm reminded that we have a real knack for looking and acting like something very much unlike the richest country in the world.

the autism labyrinth

First things first: I'm not an autism researcher. I write stuff. Sometimes said stuff is about the brain and science; other times it's about spelling, trains, skiing, Japan or whatever other assignment is on my plate. So don't mistake any musing here, about autism or otherwise, as expertise.

But last spring I wrote a story about autism for
Wired. That reporting experience, as well as a terrific book on the subject, Not Even Wrong, written by my friend Paul Collins, have put me on the lookout for autism articles, or at least programmed my too-often-skimming eyeballs to slow down a little when they see the letter string a-u-t-i-s-m.

One of the perpetually striking aspects of the autism labyrinth is just how susceptible we are to quick and concise explanations for a condition--technically a set of behaviors--that is anything but easily explainable. (Diction digression: I try not to use the word
puzzle when talking about autism. Not for any high-minded purpose, but because the descriptor is just too pithy to stomach, not to mention the puzzle pins, logos, journal cover art, posters, necklaces and other movement-associated objects and images that, I think, tend to reduce this wide spectrum of human experience--and the complex emotions that go with it--to a trinket, a la the pink ribbon. Besides, I can't forget what one interviewee once told me: I'm a person, not a puzzle.)

In the past couple of days--hence the urge to blog--I have run into a claim that pesticide exposure "links to" autism; a Yale study about babies breaking off eye contact and a possible connection to autism; and a piece from Slate with the inevitably uber-grabby headline: "TV Really Might Cause Autism." (The
Slate article is two years old, but I never saw it so it's new to me.) I asked one scientist what he thought of this theory and he responded by way of asking: "Is there a word just after bullshit, in terms of vulgarity?" What do I think? I don't know what causes autism, and I think a lot of scientists don't even know exactly what autism is, let alone have a handle on what might cause it. But what I do know is this: News about autism research often caters to, and showcases, our failure to be leery of the theory of the week. This complaint and concern about the disappearance of critical thinking isn't new, but it's increasingly alarming. Much more so, one might argue, than issues like rising rates of autism.