Friday, December 06, 2013

Nobody Asked Me, But...

The Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, once wrote that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

This is why governments jail "subversives," radicals who oppose the conventional wisdom to such an extent that they might actually foment change. It is far better to keep the populace ignorant. This tactic usually works, for who among us, who among the world of humanity, can say how much change for the good could have come from those who languished in jail?

This tactic usually works, but in one case, the case of Nelson Mandela, it did not. People refused to forget, because the power of his idea, that all people deserve freedom and all people deserve equality, was so enormous that even the regime of apartheid South Africa could not silence him, could not make us forget.

And when he was freed, and memory won out, when all around him counseled war, when all around him counseled him to rage and anger, he would say "Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished."

It is hard to fathom that a man who dies at 95 was taken from us too soon, but Mandiba, you will be missed. Your fight has only just begun.
You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
 Yihla moja, the man is dead.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Infrastructure Demands Action

It’s really sad to read stories like this and then realize they are nearly wholly preventable:

The revelation that a New York City commuter train derailed while barreling into a sharp curve at nearly three times the speed limit is fueling questions about whether automated crash-avoidance technology could have prevented the carnage.

Safety officials have championed what's known as positive train control technology for decades, but the railroad industry has sought to postpone having to install it because of the high cost and technological issues.

Investigators haven't yet determined whether the weekend wreck, which killed four people and injured more than 60 others, was the result of human error or mechanical trouble. But some safety experts said the tragedy might not have happened if Metro-North Railroad had the technology, and a senator said the derailment underscored the need for it.

That Senator, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, may draw up a bill to provide financing for the implementation. After all, Metro-North serves Connecticut, as well, and indeed, other derailments have occurred that positive train control, PTC, could have prevented.

In fact, this is the second derailment on this same stretch of track in 2013.

PTC is not a whole lot different than the radar-like systems on many luxury cars that not only can warn you of trouble ahead or to the side, but can wrest control of the car to prevent an accident, even applying the brakes within what it considers a safe stopping distance.

It should be mandatory. It will be necessary if the stated Obama goal of increasing high-speed rail transport is to be achieved, as it will also allow for trains to be run at faster intervals and shorter spacing. The “margin of error” becomes much thinner when you have a computer controlling the whole process. Just ask

This particular incident occurred as the train entered a curve rated for a top speed of 30 mph at 82 mph, nearly three times the speed limit. The brakes were applied, but not until just five seconds before the derailment. Whether it was human or mechanical failure has yet to be determined. Four people died, tragic enough but it could have been far worse if the train had continued on into the Spuyten Duyvil, a notoriously treacherous split of water. Even if someone managed to escape the wreckage, they would not be safe until they reached dry land.

Infrastructure repairs and preventive measures tend to be expensive and require large capital outlays up-front.

The MTA, the agency who oversees the Metro-North system, is cash-strapped and in debt up to its eyeballs, thanks in large part to a series of mismanaged administrations that have insisted on holding bridge and tunnel tolls – a primary funding mechanism – in check while raising fares on the poor subway riders. This has forced the MTA to acquire large debts to pay operating expenses. It’s a little like borrowing from the bank to feed your family.

This pretty much means that any system upgrade of this nature will involve federal funding of some sort, and that means trying to get it through the Teabaggers. Does anyone see that as a likely probability, even with four people dead?

Monday, December 02, 2013

Bad Economic Data

This statistic is less of a surprise than it appears:

Thanksgiving night shopping looked like a new family tradition this year as stores opened earlier and consumers took advantage of the extra time to spread out their Black Friday shopping.

The Thursday-through-Sunday tally, though, was less buying overall, according to data from several firms.

Thanksgiving and Black Friday combined brought in an estimated $12.3 billion in sales, according to shopping analytics firm ShopperTrak. Thanksgiving Day traffic grew 27% as nearly one-third of shoppers headed to stores on the holiday, according to the National Retail Federation. Many retailers opened earlier than ever, some at 5 or 6 p.m. Kmart opened at 6 a.m.

"Probably the most interesting is the amount of energy the consumer put into Thursday shopping," says Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak. "The retailers did a good job getting them up from the dinner table and into stores."

No, not the influx of shoppers on Thanksgiving Day. That makes a lot of sense to me. Dad and the boys are watching football all day. Opening on Thanksgiving was bound to be seen as a form of counterprogramming, instead of insipid marathons of bad programs on other networks, plus it gets you out of the house for the inevitable “drunk-cle” incidents.

No, that holiday shopping is off, actually down for the vital Christmas rush so far. There’s only so much cheap credit and endless refinancings will contribute to the cash position of Americans. Real jobs, with real wages that reflect the costs of living and the productivity increases that corporate America has seen over the past thirty to forty years, that’s what needed or we’re going to see more and more people leaving the commercial foodchain. Sure, there are going to be blips in the data, years when people feel a little more flush, but we’re entering a generation with the Millennials who have seen their wages stagnate too, and Baby Boomers stay off the retirement rolls longer, forcing a sort of “wrinkled ceiling” on wages and promotions. People will cut back. They have to.

After all, we’ve pulled every trick out of our asses to keep on keeping on: two-income families, with second jobs. Fewer kids. More credit. We the people are out of options, and the only one left to us is to drastically cut back in purchasing power.