Monthly Archives: August 2013

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 2

This is the second post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post is here; the third will be published in a few days.

Decades ago, clever people conceived that north-central New Mexico, where I live, could use commuter rail service along the Rio Grande. In 2003, governor Bill Richardson espoused the idea, and over the next five years, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express was planned, built, and opened—with great fanfare. Today, Rail Runner trains whiz every couple hours along a line running from Belen, north through Albuquerque, and up to my home city of Santa Fe. I have never been on one.

Why not? After all, I like trains! I also visit Albuquerque regularly for errands and pleasure. The problem is the location of the stations. In Albuquerque, the rail line runs through older residential and agricultural areas, with the main station downtown: not an optimal situation for this city. Albuquerque is big, sprawling north, south, east and west for miles. Important areas in the city are far apart. The Rail Runner has established bus links to several of these points, and desperate travelers could always call a cab. But taxicabs and buses are slow and expensive, and for someone, like me, who may want to spend the day in Albuquerque, do some errands, and return home in the evening, these options are slow and unforgiving.

This illustrates a decisive factor of regional-scale transport: as nice as the service between cities may be, if it leaves you with few options at either end, the service becomes essentially useless to many people. This is a problem today, and it will be a problem for futuristic systems, like the Hyperloop, that would connect not just towns and cities, but whole metropolitan areas. In my previous post discussing Hyperloop-style transit systems, I speculated how new technologies might change regional transportation, as speed becomes increasingly important to travelers. What happens, twenty years from now, when you disembark from a Hyperloop-inspired capsule, and need to reach your destination several miles away, cheaply and quickly? This is the domain of local transit, and it demands speed and efficiency at least as much as the regional variety. There are a few developing technologies that might foot the future’s bill, and mix things up along the way. Continue reading Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 2

sketch of Elon Musk's alpha design of the Hyperloop

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 1

This is the first post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The next two will be published over the coming week.

You’ve probably heard about the Hyperloop. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, made public his concepts for the futuristic transit system eleven days ago, and it has attracted at least as much attention as real megaprojects towards which investors have paid cold, hard cash. First, there was gushing praise and excitement at such a techno-romantic idea, then the critics showed up en masse, armed with those lethal anti-imagination weapons: accounting books and technical data. Who is right? They both are. The Hyperloop proposal itself has flaws, but as an idea, it can tell us a lot about how we might be traveling during the next century.

I won’t bore you with a detailed description of the Hyperloop (I recommend you read Musk’s actual proposal for that), or an involved treatment of its faults (the best I have seen is Alon Levy’s careful analysis over at Pedestrian Observations). Instead, in this and two subsequent posts, I will take you on a tour of possibilities for the future of transportation, and how they might integrate with and transform our society. The Hyperloop’s design offers a nice place to start.

Elon Musk’s inspirations for the Hyperloop appear to have been (merited) frustration with California’s halting, expensive high-speed-rail project, and wanting to seek out a “new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats” that would be safer, faster, cheaper, more durable, more convenient, and more sustainable than current options. Continue reading Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 1

With the last light of day,

the coppery sun peeks out

’neath a billow of gilded foam.

Out of Time

“You’re fired, Matt,” I said, and sighed sadly. “I’m sorry.”

The man across the desk did not appear surprised. He pursed his lips and, for a few seconds, stared blankly into my eyes, then dropped his gaze. He lifted his right hand slightly and ran the pad of his thumb over his fingernails.

“Of course. I understand. I know you couldn’t keep me on like this. I’m undependable,” he stated, in the same tone he used to talk about the weather.

I nodded. I might as well be honest about it. “You’re brilliant. The stuff you’ve written for me is the best I’ve ever had, no exaggeration. But I’m running a magazine here. I need articles on time and regularly. I have to do things by the clock. And you haven’t been able to meet that requirement.”

A bitter line appeared between his lips. “Time. That’s always the problem.”

“Why does it have to be you?” I said, more vehemently than I intended. “Damn it, Matt, I want your articles! I want you on staff, but not if you’re like this!” He said nothing, just kept staring at his fingernails.

“Never mind,” I continued. “I guess it’s my fault to some extent. I’ve known you long enough, I shouldn’t have made the gamble in the first place. I’ll get you the forms and information for the severance package. You can take it home with you.”

I pulled open a drawer behind me, fished out the papers I needed, and handed them to him. Matt took them gently from my hand and glanced at them, then caught my eyes with his own.

“I’m not going to argue with you,” he remarked, “but there are some, well, some circumstances that you should know about. I am inclined to tell you, and they might help explain. Not that they would convince you to keep me on, but they may make you feel a little less confused.”

“OK, shoot.” I leaned back in my chair and put my hands behind my head.

“How much time do I have?” he asked.

I checked my watch. “Exactly twenty-five minutes. Then I’ve got a meeting to look over the layout draft.”

“I’ll tell you what I can,” Matt said, and began:

“Time doesn’t work for me. Or I don’t work with time—I don’t know which. I’m … out of sync. With normal time, that is, what you and everyone else experience.

“You know how, when you’re doing something you greatly enjoy, time seems to fly, and it’s gone before you know it? Or how the seconds just crawl by when you’re in the middle of something unpleasant? Good. Now imagine that, sped up or slowed down a thousand-fold, and disassociated from whether you like or dislike what is going on. That’s a rough idea of what happens for me.” Continue reading Out of Time

When we’re all iPeople

Two days ago, I came across this video of Marshall Davis Jones performing his poem “Touchscreen”. It struck me powerfully, both by the vigor of his expression onstage and by the incisiveness of his message about technology. Watch it yourself before you read on:

That was in 2011—merely two years ago. Today, technology has grown even more intimate with our personal experience and interactions. Google Glass is a real thing now, smartwatches are arriving at an online store near you, and there’s worry that the family television, one of the last remaining centers of regular familial activity, will be replaced by the screens of single-user devices. We are experiencing a greater and greater chunk of our lives not directly, nor in the physical company of others, but through our ever-present gadgets. Continue reading When we’re all iPeople

Are we as smart as we think?

When Carl Linnaeus was completing his taxonomy of plants and animals and needed a Latin name for his own ilk, he settled on Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man”. More recent scientists, who were precise but not necessarily humble, have seen fit to single out modern humans among their extinct cousins by adding on another “sapiens”. Narcissism? Maybe. It is at least evidence that we humans think pretty highly of our species’ mental abilities.

My previous post offered a fanciful view of human evolution, in which our social and technological development started because an absent-minded bumbler didn’t pay attention to where he was going. That’s probably not accurate. But I do wonder how our species went from cavemen to CEOs. Were we choosing to advance, or just falling into pits the whole time? And what does either option say about our intelligence, and our right to the name “sapiens”?

It is fun to imagine that there was a single occurrence that determined human destiny—for example, the birth of some freakishly big-brained Australopithecus who survived to crush things with rocks and have lots of kids, and now here you are reading this on your iPad two-and-a-half million years later. Continue reading Are we as smart as we think?