Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 25th, 2009

The Steel Wheel Interstate

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Very interesting article on using stimulus funds to renovate the nation’s railways. It begins:

This proposal offers dramatic improvements in highway safety and public health, as well as much reduced highway maintenance and construction costs. It will also significantly reduce energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic jams, and shipping costs while providing significant short- and long-term economic stimulus. If fully implemented, it could get as many as 83 percent of all long-haul trucks off our nation’s highways by 2030, reduce carbon emissions by 39 percent and oil consumption by 15 percent. Call it the "Back on Tracks" project.

The best way to explain this proposal is to begin with a concrete example. Six days before Thanksgiving, a truck driver heading south on Interstate 81 through Shenandoah County, Virginia, ploughed his tractor-trailer into a knot of cars that had slowed on the rain-slicked highway. The collision killed an 80-year-old woman and her one- and four-year-old grandchildren, and brought traffic to a standstill along a 10-mile stretch of road for the better part of an afternoon.

It was a tragedy, but not an unusual one. Semis account for roughly one out of every four vehicles that travel through Virginia on I-81’s four lanes, the highest percentage of any interstate in the country. They are there for a reason: I-81 traces a mostly rural route from the Canadian border to Tennessee, and the cities in its path — Syracuse, Scranton, Harrisburg, Hagerstown, and Roanoke among them — are mid-sized and slow growing. This makes the highway a tempting alternative to I-95, the interstate that connects the eastern seaboard’s major metropolises, which is so beset with tolls and congestion that truckers will drive hundreds of extra miles to avoid it.

This is bad news for just about everyone. Even truckers have to deal with an increasingly overcrowded, dangerous I-81, and for motorists it’s a white- knuckle terror. Because much of the road is hilly, they find themselves repeatedly having to pass slow-moving trucks going uphill, only to see them looming large in the rearview mirror on the down grade.

[Extremely interesting graph at this point in the article. – LG]

For years, state transportation officials have watched I-81 get pounded to pieces by tractor-trailers — which are responsible for almost all non-weather-related highway wear and tear. To make matters worse, traffic is projected to rise by 67 percent in just ten years.[1]

The conventional response to this problem would be simply to build more lanes. It is what highway departments do. But at a cost of $11 billion, or $32 million per mile, Virginia cannot afford to do that without installing tolls, which might have to be set as high as 17 cents per mile for automobiles. When Virginia’s Department of Transportation proposed doing this early last year, truckers and ordinary Virginians alike set off a firestorm of protest. At the same time, just making I-81 wider without adding tolls would make its truck traffic problems worse, as still more trucks diverted from I-95 and other routes.

There is, however, another way to tackle the problem. As it happens, running parallel to I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley and across the Piedmont are two mostly single-track rail lines belonging to the Norfolk Southern Railroad. These lines, like America’s freight railroads generally, have seen a resurgence of trains carrying containers, just like most of the trucks on I-81 do. Due to driver shortages, energy costs and highway congestion, more and more shippers want to use rail these days, and many more would do so if trains moved faster.

The problem is insufficient rail capacity to accommodate all the freight that could go by train. Without upgrading track and removing various choke points, the Norfolk Southern cannot run trains fast enough to be time competitive with most of the trucks hurtling down I-81. Even before the recent financial meltdown, the railroad could not generate enough interest from Wall Street investors to improve the line.

Here’s where the "Back on Tracks" proposal comes in. Instead of using public money to widen I-81 and other interstates to accommodate more and more trucks, use it to improve parallel freight rail infrastructure. A study sponsored by the Virginia Department of Transportation finds that a cumulative investment over 10 to 12 years of less than $8 billion would divert 30 percent of the growing truck traffic on I-81 to rail.[2]

That would be far more bang for the state’s buck than …

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2009 at 1:16 pm

Some Moleskine hacks for the Moleskine fan

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Good collection of hacks by Dustin Wax at Lifehacker.org.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2009 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Daily life

The Archdruid writes

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The Archdruid often has good and thoughtful posts. Here are a couple:

Some Advice for Distributists:

One of the pitfalls that lies in the path of those who try to gauge the outlines of the future in advance, and swallows no small number of them, is the assumption that today’s popular beliefs and assumptions are a good guide to tomorrow’s. Sometimes, to be sure, this turns out to be the case, and some widespread opinion or other remains glued in place for decades or centuries – though this usually happens to opinions that most sensible people think will soon be abandoned. More often, though, there’s no belief less popular at any given time than the most firmly held convictions of the recent past.

A reminder of this landed in my inbox a few days back, in an article about …

A Struggle of Paradigms

Perhaps the most fascinating factor shaping today’s debates about the future of industrial society, and certainly among the most frustrating, is the rapidity with which any such debate plunges into territory outside the reach of rational argument. Watch a conversation about the subject, and nearly always one of two things will happen: either the participants will find they share basic assumptions in common, and will proceed to build a conversation on that firm ground, or their assumptions will differ and they’ll spend the rest of the conversation talking past one another.

Any number of examples could be cited, but the one that comes to mind just now is …

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2009 at 11:46 am

Posted in Daily life

Summary of torture warning

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I blogged earlier the Washington Post story about warnings that the "harsh interrogation techniques" were torture and produced unreliable information. Here’s the ThinkProgress summary by Faiz Shakir:

In a July 2002 document uncovered by the Washington Post, the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency warned that the Bush administration’s interrogation program was “torture” and that it would produce “unreliable information.” JPRA is the military agency that ran the program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), “which trains pilots and others to resist hostile questioning.” JPRA warned in the 2002 document:

The unintended consequence of a U.S. policy that provides for the torture of prisoners is that it could be used by our adversaries as justification for the torture of captured U.S. personnel.

Update: The Aug. 1, 2002 Bybee torture memo addressed to CIA legal counsel John Rizzo makes reference to the JPRA. "Your on-site psychologists have also indicated that JPRA has likewise not reported any significant long-term mental health consequences from the use of the waterboard." Did Bybee know that JPRA viewed such techniques as torture?

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2009 at 11:40 am

The information the FAA didn’t want to release

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The FAA resisted releasing information about bird strikes on airplanes by airport. The fear, I suppose, would be that people would look at the data and perhaps change airports—or maybe decide not to fly. But it’s been released under orders from the Obama Administration, and here’s the (searchable) database. In fact, the page provides access to a LOT of data—scroll down the page at the link for a full view.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2009 at 11:36 am

Why two cortical hemispheres?

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Interesting post at Mind Hacks:

Discover Magazine has an interesting Carl Zimmer article on one of the most intriguing questions in neuroscience – why do we have two cortical hemispheres? And why are they not quite the same?

It turns out that the ‘brain of two halves’ is incredibly common in the animal kingdom and that many creatures also show the behavioural lateralisation that we most readily see in humans as someone being left or right handed.

But it’s no entirely sure why we, or indeed, or animal compatriots, have evolved this way, although various theories are kicking around:

David Stark of Harvard Medical School recently found additional clues about lateralization in his studies of 112 different regions in the brains of volunteers. He and his collaborators discovered that the front portions of the brain are generally less tightly synchronized across the hemispheres than are the ones in the back. It may be no coincidence that the highly synchronized back regions handle basic functions like seeing.

To observe the world, it helps to have unified vision. At the front of the hemispheres, in contrast, we weave together streams of thought to produce complex, long-term plans for the future. It makes sense that these areas of the brain would be more free to drift apart from their mirror-image partners.

Zimmer goes on to puncture the myth of ‘left brained’ and ‘right brained’ people, or indeed, thinking styles, erroneously labelled with these pseudoscientific terms.

While certain cognitive styles have been correlated to greater activation in the left or right hemisphere, to describe a whole class of problems of thinking methods like this is nonsensical because the two hemispheres of the brain work together.

It’s like claiming someone is a good cook solely because they come from Italy. The generalisation is so broad it just doesn’t apply to individual people or situations.

Anyway, the Discover article is an excellent whistle-stop tour through the curious world of brain lateralisation.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2009 at 11:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Interview with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture

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Glenn Greenwald today:

Earlier this week, I interviewed Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, regarding America’s obligations under its treaties and international law to investigate and prosecute allegations of torture and provide legal remedies for torture victims to have their day in court.  The podcast recording, and background on these issues, is here.  Following is the transcript of the interview:

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today is Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, and he’s also a law professor in Austria.  He made news this week when he stated that President Obama’s announced policy of immunizing CIA officials who tortured detainees violates international law as well as America’s treaty obligations. Professor Nowak, thanks very much for joining me today.

Manfred Nowak: Thank you. You’re welcome.

GG: Before I ask you about the specific issues involved in that statement, could you just describe for us what your position with the United Nations is, what does it do, what’s its authority?

MN: I am United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. That is a global mandate for all countries in the world. I report to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, which is the highest political body consisting of state representatives dealing with human rights in the United Nations, and I report to the General Assembly directly in New York. And my work is dealing on a daily basis with complaints from victims, families, non-governmental organizations, about torture.

I send urgent appeals and allegation letters to governments to ask them to investigate these allegations, to stop the practice. I carry out fact-finding missions to many countries in the world, the most recent one was in Uruguay and Montenegro, and next month I go to Kazakhstan or I, of course, I just came back this morning from Bangkok where I delivered a speech to International Harm Reduction Congress on torture and the international drug policy. But it is an expert position; my main profession is that I am a Professor of International Human Rights at Vienna University, and this is a voluntary expert function for the United Nations for six years. I was appointed at the beginning of December, 1st December 2004 and the mandate will end in November 2010.

GG: Back in January of this year, you made a statement in which you said:  "Judicially speaking, the United States has a clear obligation to bring proceedings against top government officials who authorized techniques that under international law are considered torture."

Can you describe, just in summary form, what the sources of the legal obligations are with regards to bringing proceedings against government officials who either engaged in or authorized torture? …

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2009 at 11:23 am

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