The Null Device
A writer from GOOD Magazine ("for people who give a damn") examines why America's passenger rail system has fallen so far behind Europe and Asia, by taking a train journey from New York to Oakland:
The American passenger rail—once a model around the globe—is now something of an oddball novelty, a political boondoggle to some, a colossal transit failure to others. The author James Howard Kunstler likes to say that American trains “would be the laughing stock of Bulgaria.”
The reasons for Amtrak’s bad reputation are totally damning—its service is neither practical nor reliable. Impractical because most of the time, it’s cheaper and faster to drive or fly. Unreliable because more often than not, the trains are really, really late. There are stories of 12-hour delays on routes that would take six hours to drive; of breakdowns in the desert; of five-hour unexplained standstills in upstate New York. Then there’s the mother of all Amtrak horror stories: a California Zephyr that stopped dead on its tracks for two full days, victim of both an “act of God” (as corporate legalese wisely defines a landslide on the tracks) and gross staffing negligence.A lot of Amtrak's reliability problems are structural, stemming from the fact that the passenger rail company (a state-owned, loss-making private company) doesn't actually own the tracks it operates on. Nor are the tracks owned by a separate entity (as is the case with Britain's privatised railways; not usually a model to emulate, though looking surprisingly good compared to Amtrak); they're owned by the freight companies, who are legally obliged to allow Amtrak to operate on them. Since it's more profitable for them to move freight around, passenger traffic gets the rough end of the pineapple, and often has to wait.
The correspondent's train eventually made it to Oakland at 2:30am, a little over eight hours late.
Though while America's legacy rail network languishes in decline, California is planning its own high-speed rail system, initially going from Sacramento (north-east of the San Francisco Bay) to San Diego (right near the Mexican border), via Fresno and LA. (A branch to San Francisco, following the Caltrain route and terminating at the Transbay Terminal, is planned.) The site comes with glossy computer renderings of state-of-the-art high-speed trains speeding through unmistakeably Californian landscapes, sometimes with high-rise buildings rising like VU meter bars behind them.
In an attempt to combat the more-megapixels-is-better delusion, the popular camera review site Digital Photography Review has added a new statistic to its camera specification databases: pixel density:
Pixel Density is a calculation of the number of pixels on a sensor, divided by the imaging area of that sensor. It can be used to understand how closely packed a sensor is and helps when comparing two cameras with different sensor sizes or numbers of photosites (pixels). Because the light collecting area and efficiency of each photosite will vary between technologies and manufacturers, Pixel Density should not be used as an absolute metric for camera quality but instead to get an impression for how tightly packed the imaging chip is.Tellingly, looking at the specs of the compact cameras I've owned, pixel density is one thing that's only getting worse. My current compact, a Canon PowerShot A570IS, clocks in at 29 MP/cm2, considerably behind its predecessor, a PowerShot A620 (19MP/cm2). Though it still does better than its immediate successor (with 32), and even Canon's high-end compact, the PowerShot G9, gets a marginally better 28. In contrast, my venerable old four-megapixel PowerShot G2 got 10 MP/cm2—which is almost in the DSLR ballpark—and it showed in the dynamic range and colour reproduction. Granted, it didn't fit into a pocket (unless one was wearing a large overcoat), but the photos did look good...
Hopefully the megapixel race-to-the-bottom will soon end as the public becomes aware of the fact that there is such a thing as pixel density and that it affects photo quality. Then maybe we'll see a new crop of 6-megapixel compacts, and a public that's aware that they actually take better pictures than higher-density ones.
Not surprisingly, David Davis won the Haltemprice and Howden byelection. I say not surprisingly, because this is the list of rival candidates:
The two-times representative of Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest is calling - as his description suggests - for a future free of politicians. Mr Carroll, whose 1960s hits include Roses are Red and Say Wonderful Things, is conducting his campaign from his home in Hampstead, north London.
Mr Foren, formerly a Crown prosecutor in Leeds, is campaigning to preserve Britain's environment, by reducing building on greenfield sites, extending roads and expanding airports. He also promises to tackle economic inequality, introduce proportional representation at Westminster and sustaining the UK's population level by allowing only as many people to come to the country as the number who leave it.
Mr Howitt [of the "Freedom 4 Choice" party], a Blackpool pub landlord, opposes the smoking ban for public places, which came into force last year. His platform is that bar owners should be free to choose whether to allow customers to light up on their premises. Mr Howitt was the first landlord in England to be prosecuted for defying the ban.
[David Icke] says David Davis's decision to call a contest on the subject of "Big Brother" is "far bigger than even he realises and unless we see the big picture of what is going on nothing effective can be done to stop it".
Mr Nicholson, a former farmer, is running as an educational reformer. He advocates every child in the country being provided with an abacus, which he has developed, to improve their method of learning mathematics. Mr Nicholson is also campaigning for a better system of justice.Oh, and "Mad Cow-Girl" of the "Official Monster Raving Looney Party" turned out to be a quite straight pro-42-day-detention candidate in Monster Raving Looney garb.
The Graun's Alexis Petridis is unimpressed with the new CSS album, finding that the formerly chaotic Brazilian band has turned into an inoffensively generic commercial-indie-by-numbers act, its former appealing oddness—and indecorous language—ruthlessly eradicated in the pursuit of homogeneity:
Often, Donkey sounds like someone has tracked down the anonymous session musicians who spent the 1970s knocking out polite covers of chart hits for budget-priced Top of the Pops compilation albums and got them to have a stab at replicating CSS's sound. It couldn't seem less incongruous than when flashes of the old sharp CSS attitude occasionally appear on the album, marooned over their new rounded-off sound. "I'm gonna drink 'til I pass out, I'm gonna jump on the table and dance my ass off 'til I die," sings Lovefoxxx on Left Behind, sounding more like a woman who's already got her dressing gown on and is checking the Sky+ programme planner to see what time Midsomer Murders starts.
Perhaps it has something to do with the way CSS have been received, particularly in the UK. As with Björk, despite the critical plaudits and high rankings on style mag cool lists, there's a touch of Clive James chuckling affectionately at the Japanese on Endurance about people's reaction to CSS: look at the crazy foreigners with their funny clothes and pidgin English song titles. You get the sense that the band's members occasionally feel they're being patronised. Shortly before her recent departure from the band, bassist Ira Trevisan told one journalist she was sick of being asked about their "Brazilian heritage", adding: "It would be good if we were Belgian." There's a sentence you don't hear every day. Maybe the idea is to prove they have more in common with their European peers than they do with their native forebears, to make music to which no one could append the word "wacky", but it's hard not to feel that becoming as boring as your average British indie band is a pretty extreme way of avoiding the odd question about Tropicalia.