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On Facebook Privacy…Again August 20, 2010 at 3:16 am

I’m not generally someone who’s really concerned about lots of information about myself floating around the Internet. But what does annoy me is when I DO what to keep something private (or at least think I’m keeping it private even if I don’t really care) and it turns out it’s not. Such is my entire problem with Facebook. When I first began using FB, it was mostly only college students and you had to have an account to even search for other people on the site and most, if not all, of my stuff was kept between just me and my friends and maybe my network. So I knew that whatever notes or status or wall posts I was writing, only my friends and people at my school could read it.

5 years later the service is completely different. Which is fine. They’re trying to grow and compete against the likes of the completely public Twitter. But the way they’ve treated me as a user and how I use my privacy…well, I don’t feel like I’ve been thought of at all, honestly. I know they did most things “right”, popping messages and notices with most major changes, but for me as a casual/minimal user the last few years, I feel like it would’ve been nice to get an e-mail or something telling me what was changing on my personal profile with each new major feature or privacy change. When I finally got myself to wade in and spend 20 minutes figuring out the (new, simple! …simple my ass) I think all my stuff was fairly locked down, but it would’ve been nice not to have had to worry about that for several weeks/months before I got around to figuring it out. (I’m a very infrequent user now, but in the past I used it quite a bit so I have a lot of back data that at the time was secure and I don’t feel like trying to even figure out if I care if it becomes un-private, it was private and I just want it to stay that way.) A simple customized e-mail would be great every time they make a change.

And then we come to Places. At least I had time to mentally prepare myself for the fact that FB was going to do another number on our privacy, but I wasn’t expecting the “check other people in” feature. It’s not a surprise given the tagging feature on photos (and for whatever reason that doesn’t bother me). So I was happy to hear that the first time someone gets checked in by a friend it sends you an e-mail asking for permission. But tonight TechCrunch brings us news, that, no, that’s not actually how it works. If you don’t actually opt-out of Places, your friends can check you in. Let me say that again: unless you actively disable it, Facebook has by default enabled your location to be shared. This is where I begin to care less about myself (honestly I don’t have very many FB friends and rarely hang out with them and I doubt any of them would ever check me in anyway) and more about all those people who don’t mind about status updates being published in Google search results, don’t mind any of the changes Facebook has been making, but who don’t ever want their location to be shared, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s to avoid being robbed. It doesn’t matter. What matters, is that Facebook has yet again by default enabled a state of “over-sharing” rather than a state of “under-sharing” because they know that millions of people won’t mind, millions of people will mind and will turn it off, but (and these is the group that I’m righteously anger on the behalf of) also that millions of people might very well care, but don’t know anything has changed.

In my mind it’s not as much about some sort of safety issues (I very much doubt anything really bad will happen because FB once again played loose with users’ privacy) as much as it’s about a disregard for users feelings. Nobody would be upset if Facebook had a habit of tight default privacy controls. But people ARE upset because Facebook has a habit of loose default privacy controls. It’s not a lose-lose situation in terms of happy users. If FB locked down privavy by default, nobody would be complaining. Except the finance department, I presume.

A ramble about good and evil, or NYT and Net Neutrality August 5, 2010 at 9:05 pm

My opinion of the New York Times hangs in the balance of the Google-Verizon [anti-]Net Neutrality clusterf**k. Maybe I’m just a Google (and Verizon, to a lesser degree) fanboy (guilty as charged, fandom is good), but after reading the NYT’s entire article it doesn’t all stack up in my mind. Again, maybe I’m just slow to condemn Google because I’m blind to it or something, but I just don’t see how the company of “Do No Evil” (and yes, I remember China) and open source and green energy and everything else, could in a matter of weeks turn completely around on an issue they themselves helped bring to the public’s attention 4 years ago (sidenote: seems they first posted that page on the EXACT SAME DAY as the famous Daily Show “series of tubes” clip, not really sure if that tells us anything (maybe Google’s words (and $4.6 BILLION?) have been empty for 4 years?)). Verizon I can totally see. I may find them to be my “favorite” cell phone carrier at this point, but that doesn’t mean I trust them any farther than I can toss my phone. That “odd couple” pairing of these supposed talks is what smells the fishiest to me. NYT also seems to have a LOT of “response” quotes they went out and found from FCC spokespeople and various advocacy groups, but that level of detailed reporting highlights, in my mind, how little information they’re reporting about what Verizon and Google are actually, you know, saying. They seem to be implying that Google is somehow the regulator of the Internet, and to abolish the practice of net neutrality on their network Verizon would somehow need permission from Google. I know Google is huge and has 90% of the search market share and all that, but with that size comes a lot of close inspection from, well, everyone, and if they did something really, really f*cking stupid (like decide to start acting as regulator of the Internet to the likes of ISPs) they would not only have a huge sh*tstorm on their ass, they’d lose millions of customers to Bing, and probably get the FCC, FTC and DoJ all suddenly looking into them. It’s only because they’re such a nice company that people put up with them being so f’ing huge and having so many fingers in so many pies.

OK, HUGE fanboy moment here, but what I can see as likely is that Google has been having talks with Verizon for “11 months” to try to convince them NOT to start charging for faster content delivery. THAT’S what the Google I know would do.

Maybe I just don’t know Google like the NY Times is implying they do. But if it turns out the NYT is wrong, I will not only be very mad at them for inciting a huge and far-reaching sh*tstorm today, I will also be very sad because I’m one of those people who’s very scared of a future devoid of real fearless journalists who aren’t driven by pageviews (something newspaper journalists of old had no concept of). But if NYT turns out to be wrong, this whole thing will have proven, to me, that all they care about is pageviews, as well.

In fact, even if they’re right I think this has proven that to me.

RIP NYT.

A blueprint for HSR on the East Coast May 26, 2010 at 3:53 am

Last week I stumbled across something I’ve been seeking for a few years now: a list of the 100 busiest air travel routes in the United States, complete with passenger numbers from March 2009. Not having anything else to do on that particular Tuesday, I set to work putting the numbers to some use and built several nice big charts, which you’ll find embedded at the bottom of this post.

If you find the spreadsheets overwhelming or just want the analysis, here’s what I found interesting:

  1. 24 of the 100 top air routes in the USA are between city pairs on the East Coast (specifically, the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Miami; see maps at right).
  2. NYC-Miami leads the pack, with nearly 9 million passengers per year between the 3 NYC airports and airports in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. In the last 5 years this route has gained nearly 10% in passenger numbers. And 30% in the last 10 years.
  3. In total, over 60 million passengers travel by air between these 11 East Coast cities every year.
  4. Nine of these routes are between cities less than 500 miles apart (less than 3 hours travel time with the average speeds achieved by high speed trains in Europe and Asia); with a total of nearly 17 million passengers between them.
  5. Another 8 routes are between 500-1000 miles (including the fairly popular Miami-Atlanta [5 million/yr, 3rd nationally] and Atlanta to NYC [4.5 mil/yr, 5th nationally] corridors), with another 21 million passengers between them.

You can probably tell where I’m going with all this: building a less than 2000 mile High-Speed Rail system up the East Coast from Miami to Boston (with a small spur from Orlando to Tampa) has 60 million reasons why it makes sense. The skies in this part of the world are some of (if not the most) congested in the world, and instead of simply praising the Boston-Washington Acela Express “high-speed” train (which averages less than half the speed of what HSR trains in the rest of the world average) for taking 3 million passengers out of the skies and instead of working on a better air traffic control system (both of which are good things to do in general) we should be moving forward with another, much bolder, two-part plan:

  1. Upgrading the Acela system to State-of-the-Art speeds that rival those seen recently in Europe and Asia (imagine cutting the 4.5 hour trip from Boston to Washington down to only 2.5 hours (470 miles divided by 190mph average speed), or even shorter? Or NYC-Washington’s over 2.5 hour trip to under 90 minutes?) Could we bring the number of people who fly within this 500 mile corridor from 8 million people down to zero, freeing up terminal space at all the major airports in these 5 cities for more profitable long-haul flights? It was several years ago and I’ve lost the source, but I think I heard from a congressional hearing that this type of thing would cost ~$10 billion (or just over $20 million/mile for a doubling in speed). Not bad considering that the California HSR system is promising to cost at least 5 times that for a system less than double the size.
  2. Seriously pursuing the viability of building HSR from Washington D.C. to Atlanta and on to Miami. If a serious HSR system (a system on par with those currently being built and in service in Europe and Asia with average speeds of 180-190mph and cruising speeds of 200+ mph) would take even 20% of the passengers from the skies, that’s more people than currently ride the Acela Express every year and my guess, based on nothing but the Acela’s profitably success in the USA and the runaway success of HSR in the rest of the world (the Eurostar, for example, has basically killed the air traffic corridor between London and Paris while averaging a relatively modest ~135mph along the 300 mile route), is that, done right, an HSR system up and down the east coast could grab more than 20% market share (and this 60 million passengers per year market is nothing to sneeze at).

Of course, it’s that little phrase “done right” that’s the rub. Here’s my idea:

  • Super fast. There’s a difference between the definition of “high-speed rail” in the USA and the definition in the rest of the countries that have HSR. That difference needs to be addressed, and I think we need to adapt a policy and definition more in line with what Europe and Japan have (I would suggest raising our definition of HSR from 110mph to at least 150mph, which would unfortunately mean the Acela Express would no longer qualify, but that’s sort of my whole point). Aside from what we define it as, I think we need to be aiming to rival the speeds seen in Europe and Asia; meaning cruising above 200mph and average speeds of 170mph or more. The California HSR system is set to cruise at 220mph.
  • Involve the private sector. Yup. There’s a common argument against HSR that “if it were worth doing, some corporation would have already done it”. Ignoring politics for a minute and setting aside the whole big government vs. big corporations debate I have a straightforward answer to this argument: it’s folly to expect companies to put up the costs for rail infrastructure when every other infrastructure system in this country is government owned (I blogged extensively on this late last year), and with the exception of some of the farthest out libertarians, I think we can all see the sense in that. So here’s the idea: destroy the clause in Amtrak’s charter that says it has to approve every passenger rail system in the United States and bring private companies into the conversation about building rail systems (because frankly, I don’t believe that Amtrak knows any more than a lot of private companies how to do HSR right). Put up government dollars for the tracks and signaling systems and open up the role of operator to private companies (for Pete’s sake, Europe is even doing this). I think an argument against this is that it’s not guaranteed that any private companies would step up to operate trains. But I can see two ways around this: A) get a firm signed contract from a company prior to the start of construction, and/or B) have plans for a government-run system to step in if no private companies want to tackle the market. Also, nearly 20 years ago a group of companies agreed to do the entire thing (billion-dollar tracks and all) in Texas (because Texas only wanted HSR if they could avoid spending any tax dollars on it). The system never came about due to missed deadlines with the financing and opposition from Southwest Airlines, but that shows that it’s likely that basically offered “free” tracks (the biggest cost in getting an HSR system up and running) upon which to run a train business, a lot of companies would probably jump right in. Another possible private sector involvement is light cargo transport. If freight companies were included in the design phase and had tracks running right to their warehouses, who knows how many would opt to ship things via high-speed train rather than air, at least regionally. All of these uses could be charged (basically running the trackage system like a tollroad, only fair since it’s a premium transit option) and if managed correctly the government could actually come out ahead (or at least not totally behind) on their infrastructure investment.
  • Work with airports, not against them. In other words, downtown stations are invaluable, but stations at airports are too. This is something few HSR systems do, but which a lot of people have begun talking about and I think it makes a ton of sense. Not only are airports already linked into the local transit system (including car rentals, bus lines, taxis, etc.) this would automatically turn an HSR system into a feeder system for the airport system, possibly cutting out the need for shorter hop regional flights (the least efficient type of flight and one that loses the airlines money), and given the number of annual flights in America, I imagine that the “airport feeder” system would be quite a big market.
  • Code sharing. Related to the last two points I think it would make a lot of sense to work closely with airlines when setting up an operator(s) on the system and either invite the airlines to be rail operators, or at least encourage code sharing between the new rail operators and the existing airlines, this type of project is gonna be seen as a threat by the airlines, and rightly so; the best way to avoid a repeat of the Texas TGV-Southwest Airlines debacle of the early ’90s is to involve the airlines this time around, rather than working against them. Code sharing and/or trains operated directly by airline companies would make it possible to book a trip that takes you via train and plane all on one ticket/purchase, including luggage check-through, etc.  This is basically a win-win for everyone, except maybe anti-big business people who don’t care about having a seamless transit system (yes, that was sarcasm).
  • Express trains. I don’t have exact numbers as for how much time stopping at a station adds to an HSR journey, but with slowing down, speeding up and time spent sitting at the station (I would think at least 5-10 minutes for this) I imagine it adds up to half an hour or more. For this reason I would suggest every station on the route be “off-line,” meaning if an operator decides to run express trains and skip a certain station, but a different operator decides to stop there, they can both do that and the express train can just pass the “local” one by. The idea of express and local trains is obviously not a new one, but I think that having the off-line stations (perhaps even with several miles of off-line track for slowing down and speeding up trains) is pretty important. This would mean, for example, that if an operator wanted to try to capitalize on the nearly 10 million people who travel from NYC to Miami every year, but didn’t want to slow down the trip at all by stopping at any other stations, they could run a nonstop train and, depending on the train and track technology, could possibly do the 1600 mile trip at an average speed over 200 miles an hour, making it a nice, calmer, and not-too-much longer trip than by air (when you take into account airport security time, delays, etc.). This comes back to the idea of keeping competition open, as well: if all the stations are basically optional, that makes it more possible for a potential operator to mix and match what they want to do on the system.

Running the numbers for a quick (really, really rough) cost estimate based on how much the California HSR system is projected to cost per mile, and going off that number I’m remembering about how much it would cost to upgrade the Acela system to European speeds, we come up with upgrading the Washington to Boston trackage costing $10 billion (or ~$20 million/mile), and the other 1500 miles (Washington to Miami and Orlando to Tampa) costing roughly $56 million/mile (makes sense given that in Acela’s case land acquisition and most railbed work is already done) or a total of ~$85 billion, so around $100 billion for both the upgrades and the new. Now before you freak right out, keep a few things in mind: we’ve spent seven times that amount of money on the war in Iraq, and nearly three times that on the war in Afghanistan. I hate to play the “defense budget” card, but it’s really quite handy. The $100 billion for East Coast HSR would be spent over a period of perhaps a decade or more as impact studies are done, construction contracts are awarded, and the like. So let’s say we’re looking at $10 billion/yr for 10 years. The Department of Defense’s budget this year is $663.8 billion dollars. That’s one year. That’s 66.38 TIMES what we’d be asking for HSR per year. Either you think that every drop of that defense money is well spent, so then why would you care about an amount that’s only 1.5% of it? Or you think the defense budget is just too darned high, in which case I’d argue that we should skim some off the top and give it to HSR. Either way, I’m gonna argue for giving HSR it’s day, and starting with a transit corridor, that, it turns out, is quite a big market.

Edit (4am May 26): I just discovered that Florida received $1.25 billion for their recently revived HSR system from the Federal Economic Stimulus, this is said to cover half the cost of the Tampa-Orlando segment ($2.4 billion) meaning they’re budgeting it at ~28 million/mile, half of what California is budgeting for their system. At first blush I’d say the Florida number might be a little low because it’s several years dated, but I think it’s also possible that the California system could cost more per mile because of the more mountainous terrain in that state. All this to say that I now have another data point to base my EXTREMELY rough total cost estimate on, so it might very well be lower than the $100 billion number I came to above. Perhaps more along the lines of $70-90 billion. A quick look at a terrain map doesn’t show many or any mountain ranges that this system would need to cross, so my guess is that it could indeed be a fair bit cheaper than the CA HSR system. On the other hand, the Tampa-Orlando line is being built in the Interstate-4 median, meaning no land costs.

Yay May 19, 2010 at 3:04 am

Done messing around now. All posts from my old blog have been imported (some with the author name “jimmy2″, don’t worry, that’s still me, I just have multiple personalities…*grin*) and I’ve got my plugins and design all hammered out now (for now).

So, all this to say…Welcome to My New Blog!

-j

P.S. in my old blog I used categories and in this blog I’m using tags. But I used tags early on with my old blog, but not as much more recently, so…it’s confusing. Basically, don’t pay much attention to tags or categories before May 2010. Or something.

Bare with me… at 2:48 am

I’m trying to export-import all my posts from my old blog at http://jimmy.bouma-holtrop.com to this blog, but things are kinda wonky. Only some of the posts imported, but the posts that DID import all went out to my Twitter by the WP to Twitter plugin…I could have seen that one coming, I suppose. So I just deleted all 142 tweets (plus I think one real tweet…oops) and now Twitter won’t let me tweet again for a while since I exceeded the API limit. Meh. And I still have to figure out why only some of my posts exported from my old blog. Ha.

Coming soon May 3, 2010 at 4:10 am

…this is still a work in progress. Nothing to see here. Move it along.

(But do come back soon. I really hope and plan to have this blog fully up and running within a few days. *fingers crossed* In the meantime check out my Twitter and The Stream.)

On Facebook "owning" the web April 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Two days, a dozen articles read and a bunch of thought later and I still can’t figure out what’s so disturbing to me about Facebook’s new “we’re in your interwebz liking all your pages” announcement. To some degree I think it’s CEO Mark Z. I just don’t like the guy (and no, I’m not ruling out jealousy: the man is less than 5 years older than me and is worth $4 billion, who wouldn’t be jealous? *grin*) and my dislike was cemented when he needlessly (in my mind) called Facebook heaven, in so many words. Sacrilege aside, my personal experience with Facebook has been far from heavenly. Not all my friends are there and “everything” is far from how I want it to be.

But would I really care if, say, the founder of Foursquare called that service heavenly? I don’t really think I would, so I think my annoyance at that comment is just a mask of something deeper. But what?

Truth be told, I’ve never loved Facebook (I don’t love the design, the regular privacy changes make my head hurt, it seems to have database errors that only I seem to notice (unless items randomly disappearing from my stream is supposed to happen, which I think it might, in which case add “wonky relevancy algorithm” to my list of dislikes) and, well, aside from one or two people I’ve never really found it useful for keeping in touch with my social circle).

But should the dislike of a CEO and a few personal gripes really make me so disturbed by a company? It really shouldn’t, but here I am, disturbed by Facebook and their recent “we’re gonna be the center of the internet and we have half a billion reasons why” argument…nay, declaration.

I’ve been trying to think how I would react if Google or Twitter had suddenly announced a big internet-wide social graph hosted by them (actually, with the new “annotations” feature of their API, Twitter might be backdooring into this type of thing, as well). I think it depends on the implementation, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I would find it kinda disturbing. Most especially from Google, since they’ve never been able to get social right, and from Twitter I would just write it off as grandiose thinking, but FB has had massive success with social and is not exactly too small for this type of “grandiose” thinking. But I think maybe that’s what concerns me more than anything: the idea of any company being big enough to even be in the position of considering worming themselves into the center of the web like a parasite. Google is that big and every now and then I get a little concerned about how much power they have over the web, but they’ve got this whole “don’t be evil” thing which I honestly believe they try to follow. The minute I get the sense that Google has “turned” will be the minute that I stop defending Google.

Microsoft and Apple are also huge and have a ton of power, and I distrust both of them. My distrust of Apple has happened more recently and I still love their products more than I like Microsoft products (although I really can’t say enough good things about Windows 7, which I’ve been using, abusing and running 24/7 for 2 months and has crashed on me a grand total of once. Good on Microsoft for this one), but I deeply distrust Microsoft’s tries at social and I get too scared to think about the dozens of millions of people who Apple has an ironclad grip on the lives of (including myself with my MacBook and iPod Touch) and if either of them casually said “hey, we’re gonna become the center of the web because we have 500 million users and, well, we want to” I would have a freaking cow. And so would everyone else. That’s why I’m surprised at the relatively tepid response to the news from f8 from most of the tech web. My favorite line is, “well, like it or not, it’s gonna happen ’cause Mark Z has 500 million people on his side…so, why fight it?”.

Um, maybe because it’s evil?

The Ignored Step in the Lobbying Process January 12, 2010 at 10:14 am

Something has been nagging at me for years. Political lobbying is something we all know about and all hear about in terms of why a bill died in committee or why it’s so crazy so-and-so is now running such-and-such a federal agency because they used to work on K Street or what have you. And I don’t disagree that corporate political lobbying is out-of-control and needs to be checked, but the way we go about doing it, with so-called tougher “ethical standards” leaves out an important part of the lobbying process in my mind.

It’s that pesky word “ethical”.

I understand that nobody is perfect and everyone is bound to have lapses in judgment. But if you were staring at a disfigured child, say from some chemical spill or something, and a congressional bill that would regulate the types of chemical plants that hurt the child and make sure it NEVER, EVER happens again, what would you do? Rip up the bill, or sign it?

I pity anyone who even pauses in answering that question (unless it was to reread the question to make sure you didn’t answer incorrectly, than it’s OK). It’s a no-brainer, you rip up the bill, crumple it up and burn it. Then you take care of the child.

My point is thus: everyone (most everyone) has a pretty good moral compass and, as far as I can tell, is fairly ethical in such an extreme situation (though I’ve never actually met anyone standing in a field with a sick child and a congressional bill, that’d be weird). It doesn’t seem to me that most people that I know (normal “all-American folks”) really need to pause for very long when asked about how someone should be treated, but take that person to Washington, show ‘em a few suitcases of money, and suddenly they don’t give a shit about hard-working people having their houses foreclosed on them, polar bears drowning in ice-free waters, banks and credit cards charging fees loan sharks envy and generally doing a bum job of “representing the people”. Even the “good” ones are corrupted within days. President Obama passed new ethics rules his first week in office, only to break them two days later (it was important to have a former lobbyist running one the federal agencies he was just lobbying, apparently). That’s our knight in shining armor for all things good and noble [/sarcasm].

We make all this noise about how evil and bad corporate lobbyists are, but they’re just part of the political system just as an irate voter at a congressperson’s town-hall meeting is part of the political system. Both are lobbying for things. The corporate lobbyists use large sums of money (very, very large sums of money) and the voter lobbyist uses anger and emotion. I know the example of a voter is much smaller scale, but it’s the same principle and it serves to make a point: most of the time, the congressperson is going to nod, agree with the voter, spout some sound-bites vaguely related to the issue, maybe even say something about “looking into it” and then forget about the whole thing within days if not hours. One “lobbyist” taken care of. That lobbyist (voter) spent a lot on the lobbying effort (lot’s of emotion/anger and energy) and got zero return.

But suddenly it’s a bit of money being spent by a lobbyist (from K Street now, wearing a nice suit) and the congressperson is all ears and all understanding.

That, fair readers, is not ethical, moral or anything else.

It’s not really the lobbyists fault (although I don’t think former lobbyists should EVER be allowed into government until they’ve been through some sort of rehab and perhaps some spiritual confessions), it’s really not the corporations faults for HIRING lobbyists. It’s the fucking congresspeople who take the money AND THEN DO WHAT K STREET WANTS. They take our letters and phone-calls and e-mails and send us nice form letters that say “fuck you” in flowery language. They take our money, and unless we’ve given a fair amount, they don’t call us up and discuss the issues with us, most times we get an automated e-mail that says “thanks” (I’m not saying every $30 donation should be personally thanked, but my point is: we give money, lots of money, and we give feedback, lots of feedback, and it’s politely ignored).

I vote we disallow anyone in high-level government positions from using the words “ethical” or “moral” until they actually, you know, start acting that way.

Maybe this isn’t new, but it just seems to me that in the whole national conversation about “ethics reform” (WTF does that even mean? Ethics are ethics, you can’t “reform” how ethical someone is, only throw them out on their ass if they’re not. End of story.) and “lobbying reform” focuses only on the lobbyists and not at all on the zero will-powered folks who are being lobbied. Isn’t that why we elect these “leaders”? To, you know, lead? At this point it seems to me that we’ve got a whole lot of not leaders running our government, but followers, who see a shiny penny hang from a string and happily follow it without noticing that: A) they’re prancing in the opposite direction from the majority of average Americans, and: B) they’re following a corporate lobbyist who’s paid millions of dollars a year to hold that shiny penny on a string.

What’s in the water in Washington that seems to remove all true ethics and morality from our elected leaders?

Lobbying is only a problem as long as our elected leaders have no willpower. The day that they “just say no” is the day America’s will begin trusting our government again.

On sexy, sexy rail infrastructure December 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm

I have a little purple sticky-note half stuck to the shelf above my laptop on my desk that says “Europe has it right: disconnect track from train service”. I often leave myself such notes in the middle of the night (in those few minutes between when I put my computer to sleep and when I put myself to sleep), sometimes reminding myself to do things (I’ve had a pink one up for the past week that says “laundry” that I can remove now, actually), sometimes ideas for screenplays (two lime green notes have been up for the whole semester with ideas for my current project) and, sometimes (as in this case) ideas to turn into blog posts.

Not as many make it into blog posts as should.

But in this case, I was reading, for about the millionth time, some of the Wikipedia pages for several European high speed rail companies and remembered something I was going to blog months (or even years?) ago (and maybe I did, but I don’t recall doing, and can’t find any place where I did, so): the idea of treating rail infrastructure/tracks as completely different from the trains that run on them. The European Union is just getting into doing this by making their member states’ various HSR agencies and companies separate the ownership of tracks and the service of running trains into two different agencies/companies (using France as an example, this means that the ownership of tracks has been transferred from SNCF (the agency that owns the TGV) to an new agency, the RFF, but both agencies are still owned by the French government), the benefit of this setup is that it will allow new companies to directly compete on the level of train SERVICE, without having to build their own (entirely useless and wasteful) track systems. So now (or, in a couple years, since the new rules don’t actually go into effect in the EU for another year or two), for example, a new company could form, buy some train-sets and give the TGV service in France a “run for its money”, using the same tracks as TGV, but not having to be at the mercy of TGV/SNCF (which perviously owned the tracks in what anybody could see was a conflict of interest) in terms of scheduling and track use fees, since all that is now (or will be) handled by a separate company whose sole purpose of existence is to manage, maintain and otherwise oversee the tracks, but nothing more.

tracksAnd I think that’s what we need in America: federally owned and maintained tracks and signaling infrastructure and private companies using that track for freight, cargo and passenger services. (To be fair Amtrak already uses tracks it doesn’t own across most of the country, so this is not an entirely new concept.) Aside from a toll road here and there (my state’s local toll road, the 80/90 Indiana Toll Road was recently sold into privatization on a 99-year lease) and possibly a few airports (I haven’t done an exhaustive study of them all, but Google searches on several big ones revels them to be owned by the local city government) all transit infrastructure in the USA aside from rail infrastructure is government owned. Given my belief that transit infrastructure should be publicly owned (how else are we to get to stores to spend and keep the economy moving? Or to play, work, travel, etc.? It’d be laughable if ever time I stepped into the street outside my home I had to pay someone) I find it strange that a huge component in America’s shipping and even passenger travel system is privately owned. I think that, just like in Europe, if the tracks were owned by a third party (I’m voting federal or at least state governments, but there might be an argument for it being a private company…anyone want to try to persuade me?) I think that would foster better competition in the rail freight industry, take some strain off of rail freight companies (if all they have to focus on is their own trains rather than also having to maintain trackage it would make those businesses more streamlined and probably more efficient at their core business: quickly getting freight to the end users, which down the line is you and me, the consumer) and possibly, by extension, remove some strain from the Interstate highway system (if we can use federal dollars to improve the rail system rather than waiting for rail freight companies to do so it could conceivably speed up the rail system and remove the need for as many trucks on the roads) and, lastly, as much as the freight companies are told they have to give Amtrak the right of way (by way of a federal law) it sure seems to me (after sitting on more sidings than I care to remember on the one and only Amtrak trip I’ve ever been on [I was really excited to take the train before that, now I'm still excited to take a REAL train, but after comparing experiences on Amtrak and the Eurostar in Europe I've come to the conclusion that Amtrak does not represent real train travel in any way more than the tracks the trains run on]) that a third party managing the traffic would make Amtrak’s trips smoother.

This is all to say nothing of the need for high speed rail in America. But I think that the same model could be applied to higher-speed trackage, and, in fact, that federal ownership of the nation’s tracks could make upgrading those tracks to support higher-speed travel much easier than it is now (just look at the fastest trackage in America: it’s owned by Amtrak in the Northeast).

Memo to Obama: "yes we can" be positive about the economy October 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Today the BBC is reporting that the US recession is over as the economy grew 0.9% from July-September (CNN is reporting this as well, but not as the headline story that the BBC is making it). That’s awesome news (not lost on investors, who’re making today one of the larger gain days in the last few months) and much reason to celebrate. After all, this has been the worst recession in decades (technically the National Bureau of Economic Research hasn’t declared it over yet, so maybe I should say “is the worst”).

But what’s getting my goat on this fine October day is the reaction from our president:

President Obama said while “welcome news”, the US was still a “long way” from recovering from the “deepest downturn since the Great Depression”.

A “long way” huh?

Now before anyone flames me and points out that both articles cite numerous economists direly telling us not to get excited, I’d like to point a few things out:
1. I’m not an idiot.
2. are these the same economists who predicted a stock retreat in September, or who all summer kept telling us that the recent stock gains were not gonna continue? ‘Cause the Dow has jumped 25% since early July and gained about 200 points in September, so I’m not so inclined to believe these folks.

Now I know that the economy is still in the crapper, 1 in 10 people are without jobs and all that stuff. But isn’t the president supposed to lead and also inspire? Especially this president? Remember all the “hope” and “yes we can” when he was running? Or was that just “yes we can” get him elected? Telling us that we’re still a “long way” from seeing anything good in the economy while a whole pound of good news is staring us in the face seems somewhat less than hopeful or inspiring or “yes we can”ish. I wanna hear him calling out the companies that we’ve begun buying stuff from again to start hiring us again. Investors have been showing since July that if it were up to them we’d be out of this recession and they’ve been pumping money into the markets. And sometime in the last quarter consumers caught the same bug and increased spending:

Consumer spending rose at a 3.4% rate, the biggest increase in nearly three years. Spending by consumers accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation’s economic activity.

Wow, 2/3 of the economy is increasing at a rate above what was expected. Sounds good to me.

Let me repeat those two things:
1. investors are pumping money into companies.
2. consumers are pumping money into companies.

Just because the government is gonna stop pumping money into companies, it doesn’t mean those other two things are gonna stop.

Oh, and you know that housing market that crashed?

Other reports in recent weeks have shown that housing sales, home prices and new home construction rose during the quarter.

Hampel said that the gains in housing go far beyond the impact of the tax credit, however.

It’s time to stop being depressed about the economy. Things are turning around. Sure there’s still stuff that’s not good, 9.8% unemployment is totally not awesome, but stocks are rising, consumer spending is rising, the housing market is recovering, and the numbers look good enough that we can probably say it’s not all entirely the government stimulus money talking. Wouldn’t it be more “hopeful” if our president said some of those things, instead of telling us how awful things still are? Wouldn’t it be more “yes we can”ish if he got out there and reminded companies that people are buying things again and it’s their responsibility to start hiring again?

I think it would.