Reading the various articles about Minneapolis police attempting to suppress protest and, significantly, working particularly hard to prevent people from videotaping police response to protests, I had a terrifying thought.
Reading the various articles about Minneapolis police attempting to suppress protest and, significantly, working particularly hard to prevent people from videotaping police response to protests, I had a terrifying thought.
So they're saying that Hurricane Gustav may be worse than Katrina as far as the southeastern U.S. is concerned. Well, first of all, I'm offended that yet again the national coverage is exclusively about New Orleans, as if the millions of people in other parts of the area weren't worth mentioning, except as afterthoughts implied by several sentences about possible damage to oil drilling facilities.
Have y'all read Heavy Weather yet? You really should.
But that's not my main point.
My main point is that, looking at what is happening down there, it seems pretty obvious to me that the majority of the people down there should be letting go of their very conception of what a home is.
Plenty of people by now have discussed the idea of converting large parts of that area back to wetlands and I'm all for that. But for those who intend to continue living there, it's past time that they let go of stick construction once and for all. If they're on the highlands, they should be looking at monolithic approaches like double walled AAC or flat out cast concrete. As for everybody else? Well, the housing projects defy my understanding but as for single family homes, maybe their children will start building big, heavy duty slabs, put flooring on them that can withstand exposure to the elements but looks pretty, and simply bloody well put quick-assembly structures like yurts or others on them.
Because as I look at the endless cycle of people using up, what, thirty or forty sheets of plywood and assorted other materials every time there's a storm, taking a day or three just to get all this stuff in place, I find myself thinking that with that amount of time being spent and nowhere near that much waste, they could easily take out most of their furniture, roll a few heavy pieces into a small hardened shed, pack the rest into a trailer, and disassemble a dynamic structure like a yurt or one of the Fuller-derived variants.
If you look at what is built for things like Burning Man these days, you'll find that such structures have now been designed to be able to be thousands of square feet, insulated, opaque or transparent as desired, and so on. So don't assume that I'm talking about some tiny, low-ceilinged, hippie contraption of boiled wool and rough-cut wood.
Anyway, I have a cold so I'm not up for detailed plans or links. So I'll leave you with one possible approach.
Heavy duty slab with one ten foot by twelve foot reinforced concrete room. This room is quite literally sealable watertight and contains all services, including the boiler, HVAC, and junction box. It's lined with built-in shelves. The bathroom and kitchen back onto it, with concrete overhangs above them. Instead of kitchen cupboards, the homeowners mostly have racks of Metro shelving or equivalent on heavy duty wheels. Even the sink and stove (electric) are on wheels if they cannot be built in. (My old friend James Hong did this quite successfully and beautifully about twenty years ago. But, back then it sure helped that he's a trained architect and experienced contractor.)
Most of the house lighting is 24 volt DC, as are all appliances. A 200 Watt solar panel is mounted on top of the concrete room and can be folded flush with the roof fastened down. A passive solar hot water heating system is built around two more panels, also designed to be folded flat and locked in place during storms. Not only does solar work very well with 24 volt, it also means that if the power goes out before they leave or is still down when they get back, they won't exactly be running projection TVs, but they'll get by.
The rest of the house is fabric on frame, except for the front door and a couple of floor-to-ceiling windows, which are mounted for quick removal into low connectors flush with the slab. The fabric is all rip stop. For those of you who haven't seen modern rip-stop, you might be surprised at just how tough it can be. Suffice to say that a burglar can't just drop by with a sheath knife, cut a way in, and take everything. Personally, I'm partial to the idea of the entire house having an external wall about eighteen inches high of cinderblock covered in brick or something equally durable on which the frame mounts, but that's just me.
When a storm is coming, all appropriate items are put on shelves and rolled into the shed. Rugs get rolled up and stored. Storm shutters are lowered from the overhang to cover the remaining bathroom and kitchen built-ins. The front door, still mounted in the frame, and windows are removed from their braces and rolled into the shed using a purpose-built cart.
The rest of the house is disassembled, folded flat, and put into the shed. The shed is then sealed utterly. Valuables are kept in a few small pieces of furniture, also on wheels, which, along with one clothes closet, are put into the car.
Everybody drives away, their home safe and sound.
With modern technology, this could be done so as to take less than a day for breakdown and setup. Anybody who has worked in a photo studio, in catering, or with a band knows just how much can now be designed to be disassembled and packed flat. We have technology for quick-releases, instant assembly tents, lightweight supports, and miniaturization that would make this entirely practical and there is no reason that it would all need to look chrome and impersonal.
In fact, much of the Chinese-style furniture I see these days was originally designed for households that moved periodically, as were many colonial pieces, let alone gothic ones. Done right, such a household can be quite beautiful. Any a y'all who saw Firefly and remember the look of Inara's shuttle will know what I'm talking about. And, of course, pretty much everything Middle eastern was designed for this, too.
Anyway, my basic point is that homes as we know them simply aren't logical for many people in a world as turbulent as ours is getting. Sooner or later, people living there will figure that out.
Wouldn't it be nice if it were sooner?
I'm curious. I've been looking around a bit and I've come across a few places that say that she puts a heavy emphasis on "transportation". But when I look for specifics I find nothing but cutting funds for several roads and one bridge. Yeah, she's in favor of cellulosic biofuels but by now so is everybody right down to the neighbor's cat.
With both Dem and GOP candidates having chosen their running mates and the general campaign beginning, we'll see how they present themselves to America, rather than just to their own parties. Can't say that I'm looking forward to it.
"The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint ... but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices." - C.S Lewis
So I see that General Motors is running an ad campaign crowing about how wonderful they've been for America this past hundred years. Oh, indeed, nobody could doubt that they have affected the fabric of America, but I wouldn't call it "stitching".
How about we go with "infesting"? Sounds about right to me.
A lot of you know about the documentary, Taken For a Ride. Maybe about Who Killed the Electric Car. Maybe some of you are familiar with the Snell Report, which documented how car companies, most notably General Motors, worked for over thirty years to undermine mass transit in America and anywhere else they could reach. Those of you who've been reading this blog know that before and during World War II General Motors conspired to price-fix the market for bus service along the west coast, profiteering at the expense of the country and our citizens during wartime. In my research I also discovered that the Supreme Court found General Motors guilty of having bankrupted the only other remaining makers of freight locomotives, crippling our ability to keep rail going in America and wiping out a major American export industry, replacing it with a half-hearted occasional attempt to pull in a few foreign orders when they weren't too busy exploiting Americans to remember to focus on exploiting people abroad.
Or we could talk about their persistent efforts to fog the issue of fuel efficiency, which has left us in the state we are now, beggars hoping that Muslim extremists like the Saudi government and totalitarian regimes who hold our debt like the Chinese will be merciful instead of f*cking us over as they perceive, with no small justification, we did them for the past five generations.
Let me be plain. General Motors is a criminal enterprise. Their activities have been dependent on fraud, sabotage, and collaboration with other criminals from the day that they were created, a combine from day one, founded not by inventors or drivers but by financiers who chose the very name GENERAL Motors because it successfully portrayed their intent, to combine, to monopolize, to control and exploit, with contempt for the particulars of the product and contempt, sadly justified by their success, for the legal system that has over and over and over allowed them to steal and lie and bully.
And get away with it.
We all know that Michael Moore goes for the easy targets. For the easy win against the most egregious offenders. And we all know that's he's a pretty smart guy, a notable success in his own brand of self-promotion.
Well, then, that makes it perfectly appropriate that he chose G.M. for his first movie and that it did so well. Because they don't even need to hide their fundamental pustulent, parasitic actions and the well-trained leeches who implement it. After all, it's worked for a hundred goddamn years. Why should they change?
Well, let me remind you all of a basic fact. They are losing money. Have been for years. Their pension obligations, much though they work to evade them, are bleeding them dry. Their bull-headed refusal to face the changing world leave them yet again playing catchup as Americans stop buying the shoddy goods they try to foist off on us.
So keep in mind, WE CAN KILL THIS BEAST. AND WE MUST.
I and my research partners have been studying American infrastructure for going on ten years now. We have dug through fifties trade journals and eighteen-hundreds advertising, and court cases that are pending right now. And I tell that we are only now waking from a hundred year delirium of irrational consumerism and self-destruction inflicted upon us by a few hundred corporations and their government coconspirators. And our only chance of making through the crises we are seeing descend upon us now is to tear ourselves free of our delusions, look with appropriate attention upon the practices that can get us through, and leave the rotting shells of our former mesmerizers behind us on the road, starved of our money and effort, unable to survive by honest labor, and hence utterly removed from our lives.
Do not buy General Motors products. Do not support General Motors products. Do not work for General Motors companies. And spread the word about what they really are.
Or, quite literally in coming years, disasters that make Katrina seem like a mild breeze, disasters on a truly Biblical scale, will overtake our world. The seas will roll over us, our cities will be enfolded in flood, fire, and disease, and we will go to our deaths watching their repugnant faces through the weatherproof glass of their shelters as they leave us to die and try to figure out who among themselves to sacrifice next.
An audit has just concluded that "Metro's innovative Transit-Oriented Development program needs to better document how it selects and funds high-density projects along transit lines, in part to avoid looking too cozy with developers".
By now everybody who pays attention to the UMPC space knows that the original OLPC project has had more problems with credibility and ambiguity than a mumbling insurance salesman. Every time I look into what they're doing there are yet more disclaimers, restatements, and frantic bits of spin to wade through.
I've been rethinking my conclusions about streetcars recently. Increasingly I'm thinking about America's self-identification as, well, an ownership society. We like to own what we use and mass transit is pretty completely no longer thought of that way. Which is interesting because back in the twenties or thirties and before, this wasn't true.
My friend Sara and I had a talk about this a while back. I called her up and started with the statement "Watergate was part of what killed the streetcars". We agreed that people used to talk about "our" streetcars but now talk about "the" mass transit system. It is now a thing apart from people, a service grudgingly and poorly provided by an untrustworthy and unresponsive government.
Now, we can talk about how and why this has changed, but I'm finding myself thinking instead about more radical and, I think, actually more practical approaches to transit that might, among other things, address this. And, to get more specific, I find myself thinking more and more recently about the possibility of very small-scale multiprovider mass transit systems.
Would it be possible to have rights of way be public but some or all of the rolling stock and even trackage be owned and managed by local neighborhood groups or private companies? Should we look again at what rail transit is?
Yet again open source leads the way. Within the software and telecommunications world we are finally seeing that organizations and individuals can and will work together in a complex way if the protocols are built right, if open standards are agree upon, stuck to, and enforced. That is how the internet works - millions of organizations sharing tasks according to a shared set of rules, routing arrangements, and traffic management references.
After all, that is what HTTP means, Hyper Text Transfer Protocol. It means that the document at a particular "http" address is formatted in an agreed upon way that is compatible with this communications system called "the internet". This will then be accessed, as are most networked devices in the world, according to a system called TCP/IP, which is a Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. In essence, a set of rules for routing things.
Just to put this all in perspective, to close the loop, some of the first work done to invent the modern systems computers and networks are built with was done by the model railroad club at M.I.T. They were looking for more sophisticated ways to route multiple trains around a complex network of interconnected tracks. Communications routing grew out of rail logistics; maybe it's time that the innovations of communications routing were better applied back to rail.
I think that it would even be possible to have a diverse "ecosystem" of rail vehicles and trackage that could intermingle just fine, certainly with fewer accidents than roads, without any need for a central government authority to own and run it all. Governments could be participants in this ecosystem, perhaps functioning as providers of last resort, ensuring that a minimum of service is provided to a broader range of users. But not sole providers.
I do worry that this would lead to private entities cherry picking all the best lines and leaving the government with all the most thankless jobs, not to mention creating a multi-tier system where riders in wealthy areas would get better service, more often. But I think that recent examples like the east coast "Chinatown buses" refute that fear to no small extent. From what I've seen, underserved, poor areas have a solid habit in recent decades of giving rise to gloriously, even rabidly, energetic capitalists who compete fiercely with each other to provide better, more diverse services for less money.
Okay, now we come to our ability to judge what is doable, what "makes sense". And I'm betting that most of you who have some continuing interest in these issues are reading this and thinking that your knowledge of past transit systems speaks against this idea, one way or another.
Well, there has been a lot of talk for a long time about "what we know" about rail based on past systems but if you study it, as I have, you discover that using American case studies is damn near a complete waste of time. Most passenger rail companies in America were built and run as some degree of instrumentalities of stock frauds or semi-frauds (see RCN for a recent comparison), excuses to negotiate other things, political footballs with huge monopolies, subsidies, and penalties, and various other kinds of enterprise whose commitment to actually paying the bills by fares from moving people and goods from one place to another was spotty at best.
I've tried. I earnestly set out and read piles of books and articles about various rail ventures, streetcar and otherwise, and they're a morass of externalities, agendas still being pursued, and intentionally destroyed records.
So, in other words, I'm now down to concluding that it's better to start clean.
That being the case, I've reached some conclusions, one following from another.
- In certain markets there is a staggeringly huge potential demand for small, light duty vehicles that we can viably call trolleys.
- Such trolleys, from an engineering perspective, could be built for about a hundred thousand dollars apiece. Far less if surplus parts and creative approaches are used. It's worth noting that there is a huge reserve of old schoolbuses out there and that a used school bus sells for about a thousand bucks.
- Many of the old streetcar lines that did run semi-rationally were actually set up and initially run by private entities who simply wanted a more effective way to get workers to their plants. I think that those entities, given the opportunity, would reenter the market.
- With modern materials and approaches, a light duty streetcar would weight far less than we're used to, requiring far less energy to move and stressing the track below it far less.
- Given such cars as the rolling stock, rights of way that wouldn't actually be quite what we're used to calling "rails" would work just fine and could be built for much less than we're used to assuming.
- Maintenance could be done far more cheaply for such systems than people assume.
There are, to put it mildly, regulatory and design obstacles to such an approach, not to mention plenty of big contactors and other established interests who would come out swinging, trying to discredit the idea utterly.
Even so, I think that municipalities should consider creating open standards for light-duty rail (not the same as "lightrail" by any means) vehicles and track and then encourage BIDs, organizations with large bodies of workers, real estate developments, neighborhood groups, people seeking customers, and so on, to put in track, stations, and rolling stock where and how they will.
Personally, being me, I would prefer to see this tried out several times in small towns, where mistakes could be made without fubaring too much. But I'm old enough by now to realize that most people violently disagree with me on this and that if this is to happen at all, it will probably be done as a multi-billion dollar, rabidly disputed project in some city that will have to endure all sorts of chaos and create all sorts of misleading impressions as they try to get this thing running.
I also like, I must admit, that it is a classic opportunity to build a very free-market friendly system of the sort that Chicago School types love to talk about that requires just the sort of strong central administration that gives them hives :->
I discussed this all with Sara again tonight and she suggested London, Ontario as an ideal hypothetical place to implement such a system and I think that she's right. London is large enough to have diverse needs and geography, has an unusually interwoven and uniform cultural base. (The several times I've been there, I've heard from everybody from Lebanese fry cooks to elegant WASPy ladies-of-a-certain age how everybody in London seems to know everybody else.) It is prosperous but does not have rail. It has several thriving commercial areas, including one long street that would be ideal for light duty rail and a sizable college that is big enough, both geographically and in terms of student body, to be able to justify a small system of it own.
Anyway, at some point, after the Zine Symposium is over, I'll come back here and better address things like right of way mechanics. But for now, think about this. I know that it must seem odd, but give it a bit of time. You may, like me and Sara, come to see it as a hell of a good idea.
The New Yorker currently has a piece on the grotesquery that is the modern lawn and how things got that way. I'm a Portlander,a former Manhattanite, and an environmentalist, so there are many things that I could say but I'll just stick to one.
The New York Times has a nice piece up on the considerable number of cities now planning to put in streetcar systems. I was quite happy with it. However, they missed some key points that I have raised here before, so I wrote them a little note saying so. Here is what I wrote:
Dear NY Times Editors,
Your August 14th piece, Downtowns Across the U.S. See Streetcars in Their Future, while informative, misses concerns of smaller communities. For every Cincinnati, there are twenty or more Astorias, Rutlands, and Iowa Cities. Many of them are only looking, for now, for a way to get weekend shoppers from one end of Main Street to the other or to help a few hundred people a day commute to a few dozen workplaces. And for such uses the custom-welded stainless steel components and complex computer controls of a typical modern streetcar are no more appropriate than a jumbo jet being used to deliver mail to a family farm.
Streetcars are, basically, nineteen-thirties technology and vehicles and rights of way meant to run ten hours a week on a simple route, with a typical car carrying sixty or seventy passengers, shouldn't cost anything like the prices being quoted by current makers.
If, that is, we're only talking about technological concerns. I've looked into this a little bit and as far as I can tell, even beyond the issue of all cars being built to handle hard use in central cities, well-meaning but crippling federal regulations add even more to costs. These include ADA compliance, safety rules that make one set of doors cost as much as a Mercedes, and a whole range of other requirements that don't fit light-duty use. Not only that, they penalize public transit systems, yet again holding them to a much higher standard than private, thus making these systems more expensive for reasons that have nothing to do with inherent operating or capital cost.
If America is serious about addressing our energy problems, then Congress must pass exemptions from some or all of these regulations for small towns. Exemptions that can be limited by miles traveled per vehicle, average number of passengers, by availability of paratransit for the disabled, and other tests that confirm the suitability of the case. Exemptions could even include a time limit with phased in compliance with higher standards, giving smaller communities a chance to try out streetcars before committing to millions of dollars of speculative spending.
America was once enriched by hundreds of streetcar systems, systems that were held up with pride as examples of our country as a place where things "just worked". I very much hope that in not too many years this will be true again.
Rustin H. Wright