I know more than I can say

On Monday Robert Samuelson gave a mighty insult slap to rail advocates everywhere in “A Rail Boondoggle, Moving at High Speed.” I’ve been carrying it around since Monday, having torn it out of the Post—yes, it comes in paper—mulling over how I could blog about it without just having a verbal tantrum. I’d take it out of my bag and –grrrr—get all riled up to respond, and then I’d put it back, asking myself on what basis was I going to argue with him. He’s a major guy, Samuelson and a compelling writer. I always read his stuff to counter the very real human desire to seek only corroboration for ones own position, because only occasionally do I agree with him-- on his support of raising gas taxes for one. He has people, I assume, who research these things, crunch numbers, and present him with data from which he writes these authoritative pieces. He uses numbers and statistics. He seems to know what he’s talking about.

To know what we’re talking about...how does that happen? How do we know what we know? I write this each week with a certain kind of knowledge, underlying a certain kind of authority, but I am acutely aware of my responsibility to “know what I’m talking about.” To say I just know that Samuelson is wrong about this is a true statement but also the sort of intuitive leap that philosopher Michael
Polanyi writes about (in his book The Tacit Dimension, among others). That hunch, the intuitive leap, is what keeps me reading and re-reading, examining my own biases and blindnesses, to search for what's left unsaid. Once I stopped growling and started nit-picking, I started to think that maybe I did know what I was talking about. For example...

“That would be only the beginning. Ticket prices would surely be subsidized; otherwise, no one would ride the trains. Would all the subsidies be justified by public benefits -- less congestion, fewer highway accidents, lower greenhouse gases?” So says Samuelson, leaving aside the obvious question: isn’t automobile travel subsidized? Highways? Cash for clunkers? Given his own clarification of the benefits, I think the answer is yes, Robert, the subsidies would be justified by the public benefits.

He goes on, of course, leaning on the crutch of our suburban traditions. “By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can't pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go. Cars can.” Nobody, not even I, expects the trains to pick them up. I’m okay, you know, going to the train. The great absence of a mention of alternative modes of mobility between rail and car is glaring. And, averaging density across the entire country becomes so abstract as to be meaningless.

It also seems quite risky to argue that present conditions will persist as future conditions. Let’s not forget that the people who brought us “this page left blank intentionally” (my all time favorite bit of inadvertent surrealism) also remind us that “past performance can not be used as a guide to future performance.” Except, apparently, when it comes to making specious arguments on why Things Will Always Be This Way Because Americans Jus’ Love Their Cars. We weren’t always car-dependent, and we won’t always be so.

“Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer. Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can't compete with planes.” Well, neither can cars. And below 400 miles, the plane becomes ridiculous. Let’s keep multiple options on the table, just as we should with renewable energy. Solutions have to be highly situational.

I know it’s expensive. I know that buses can move lots of people in the cities. I know that change is hard. I know all that, in a Polanyian sense. But the steel rail is the diamond ring of infrastructure: it signifies commitment. It says: go ahead make your plans for the future based on this. We’ll be together, in good times and bad, in boom times and bust. Alas, we’ve had our transit hearts broken before: ripped up streetcar rails in cities, letting long distance lines get overgrown, selling off the rights of way. With all due respect to those who at least want to preserve those rights of way for public enjoyment, “rails to trails” is a serious downgrade of the value.

Tell me please, wise economists, why that argument made sense.


Vacation’s over. Heat is on. Emails ferment in heaps. Reentry is so hard.

I’ve just returned from about 10 days in the Adirondacks where I, in 19th century fashion, took the cure and recuperated from the travails of modernity. Flippant, but true. Where I go—and the location will remain undisclosed, lest I have to track you all down and, you know, take care of you—has no land line in the cabin, no TV, no cell service, and no internet except at the public library. Instead, it offers clear water, crisp air, local beer and North Country Public Radio.

Now after 6 summers at the same cabin, on the same lake, in the same town with the same weathered and uncalculated charm, I have come to need that time and place like I need oxygen. I’m just another Adirondacks patient, in a sense, stretching back to those who started seeking a cure for tuberculosis at Saranac Lake in the 1880s. Consumption, another name for tuberculosis and other vaguely wasting afflictions, was the trendy disease of the 19th century city-dweller. It also became the easy way to dispatch any number of heroes and heroines in the literature or opera of the time.

We have our own disease of consumption resonating like a perfect octave with its 19th century predecessor. Its wasting is of a different magnitude and order. The toll on body and mind that consumption exacts from overworking, over-indulging, over-buying, and over-eating is by now familiar to us, but that doesn’t mean we do anything about it. But we’ve also become the parasite itself, in our wasting of energy, resources and, worst of all, opportunities to cure ourselves and the planet. And so, those who can, flee, take the cure and resume the countdown until next year. I live quite differently there. When water comes from a spring, the flow of which is sensitive to rainfall, I don’t take my water for granted. When every scrap of refuse has to be taken to the transfer station, I’m careful about what I use and re-use. Every dish gets washed by hand. Every bit of firewood carried in by hand. A small bit of my conscience warns me not to romanticize my Thoreaun week, or play at being a peasant like Marie Antoinette. That’s a different kind of consumption. We summer people—and this is surely the great common trait of modern tourism in general, eco-tourism in particular—experience aesthetically a landscape indifferent to our delight in it. Our leisure; others’ labors.

I saw a bumper sticker on a truck in town: “It’s not a damn park. It’s where we live. It’s where we work. It’s our home. Although it delights and reassures me that my Brigadoon never seems to change, that is the outsider’s perspective. What is striking about areas like the Adirondacks is that Nature herself is not shy about reminding us of that fact, if we’re attentive enough to pay attention. Disrespect her at your peril. The month of August appears benign. Come on back in January.

I suppose it’s this sort of reflecting that sent Thoreau into the woods in the first place. In the end it isn’t just the gazing at the shimmering lake or the dome of stars but the chance to think about the problematic of nature, culture and settlement that is rejuvenating. I’m humbled by the place; I treasure my time there even as if it means steaming piles of unread email upon returning. The therapeutic landscape works on body and mind. Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., one of the contributors to the Green Community book (which will be available next month, so get your checkbooks ready!) opens her essay with the following reminder:

The World Health Organization has defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” In this regard, the built environment is as important as any other physical factors that might trigger disease, such as infectious or inflammatory agents or toxins....Through the emotions, the physical environment can trigger or worsen stress-related diseases, or it can do the opposite: calm and prevent stress and thus enhance healing and health. Healthy environments must, then, be those that sustain both the emotions and physical health.


“I love your big refrigerator...”

“I love your big refrigerator...” --Traveling Wilburys

I just got back from a quick and I carbon-laden trip to New Orleans where I was part of a series of panels convened by Autodesk at the giant SIGGRAPH convention. I have to admit that I had never heard of this event, which is a gathering of folks from the computer gaming, animation, film, research, and the general digerati elite. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay long enough to dive deep into the culture, so very unlike that on my home world, but I was there long enough to get a grasp on the myriad interconnections across the visualization spectrum. Thousands of attendees, most of whom looked barely old enough to travel unsupervised, are even now still roaming the cavernous halls of the New Orleans convention center sharing schemes to make the un-real ever more seductive.

Convention centers, like convention hotels and airports are strange liminal non-places. (Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, by Marc Auge, which I confess to not having read, only read about) Once ensconced in the capsule of the event, I could have been in Crystal City except for the extra-vehicular activity for dinner a few blocks away. Had I been able to stay longer I would have gone on many more excursions, if only to escape the deep freeze. It’s an odd thing to say about an August visit to New Orleans, but, except for a few intervals of wet-blanket heat, I was absolutely freezing from the minute I boarded the plane here in Washington until I returned home yesterday morning. The airport, the plane itself, the taxi, the hotel—no operable windows in my 10th floor room, which always gives me a queasy form of claustrophobia—the convention center, the restaurant, all seemed to have their collective thermostats set to 55.

It’s not that I like the heat; I don’t. But I like to know where I am, and that knowing comes from all of the senses. Seeing New Orleans from the window of an icy taxi is strangely disorienting. It’s like watching an animation, which of course is what the thousands of SIGGRAPHians spend their time doing. I prefer my reality real...even if there is some discomfort associated with it. Without the haptic verification of place, I am unconvinced I was really in New Orleans, boarding pass notwithstanding.

New Orleans has become such a complex knot of nostalgia and catastrophe, an icon veiled by its own mythology that it hardly seems real anyway. It is locked in a destructive relationship with oil, sucking it up out of the Gulf like a junkie, even though it knows the acute and chronic health consequences are dire. The businesses super-cool visitors, so know one has to see them sweat. Next time I go back, I’ll carry an umbrella for the sun, get a sandalwood fan, and get out of the animation.

But enough of that...One of the speakers on our day-long urban planning sessions was from the non-profit Environmental Simulation Center in New York. If you’re not familiar with them and what they do, you should be.

And, finally, I’m heading to an undisclosed location for the next week so the next post won’t be until the week of the 17th.