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Tuesday 30 November 2004

Back At Tino Manor

We are back for a while now from our travels, and regular ranting should resume here soon. At the moment, though, I am trying to recover from all my aches and pains and am not up to much besides that.

My ribs are all bruised up thanks to Amtrak bouncing me around all last night like a fourth-class parcel. Our sleeping compartment was on the end of the car, right over the truck. There are two things you need to know to fully understand why this is a problem:

  1. The American loading gauge is quite large, and
  2. American railroads’ tracks are maintained for hauling coal, not passengers i.e. they do not give a particularly smooth ride.

#1 means that American train cars are, relative to those in other countries, enormous, which in turn means that the cars act as levers to exert a whole lot of force on the trucks at each end. #2 means that most of the track in this country is horribly bumpy. Well, okay, three things you need to know: perhaps because there’s more track in the United States than in most other countries, the American approach has generally been to build fancy suspensions into the railcars rather than to fix the tracks. This contributes to the general wallowing motion of Amtrak trains as their giant springs rebound from absorbing the bumps in the track.

Anyway, all of this means that the compartment over the trailing truck on a Superliner car gets bounced around quite a bit, and it gets whipped back and forth a lot, too. The only respite comes in Florence, SC, where the train stops for fuel and a crew change. Unfortunately, it does this in a middle of a relatively busy freight yard, where CSX spends a lot of time humping cars.

In railroad terms, humping refers to connecting railroad cars together by opening the couplers and sending them down a little hill, at the bottom of which is a partly-assembled train.

You can probably imagine what the collision of empty railroad cars sounds like, but in case you can’t, here’s a representation:

Boom! Boom! Boom! Booooooommmmmm! BoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoom!

That last bit is the train being pushed back to its starting position from where it’s rolled from the impacts. Repeat this for about forever, and in much bigger type, and you get the idea.

So it’s somewhat less restful than it might be, despite the Superliner being the world’s finest sleeping car. A room somewhere in the middle of the car is essential; this way you might be able to sleep through the BOOOOOMMMMing. I didn’t, and so I’m still a bit wrung-out, and I just offer these pictures:

Amtrak lounge car 33101, still showing evidence of its off-track excursion in April 2002. Four people died in the derailment of the Auto Train due to a track misalignment. Ironically enough, all the fatalities occurred when the walls of the cars twisted and allowed the grommet-retained emergency-exit windows to fall out; the unlucky passengers were thrown from the train, which then fell over on them. Lounge #33101 wound up on its side in the ditch. The fact that Amtrak has not even repaired the scrapes and gouges on this car tells you something about their finances.

The world’s smallest and bounciest room. Actually that’s probably not true, but it is a pretty small room in any case. Also Tino’s knees. Those seats are horribly uncomfortable for sitting in, but they do fold out into a bed.

amtk_coffee_1.jpg amtk_coffee_2.jpg
Two views of the coffee-and-ice area at the top of the stairs in the middle of a Superliner sleeping car. My elbow and/or forearm appears in many of these pictures, for which I offer no apologies. Taking pictures in a moving train is hard enough without having to worry about whether your elbow is in the frame. This lens has a field of view of 180°, so some part of you will almost always be in the frame.

amtk_stairs_1.jpg amtk_stairs_2.jpg
Going down the stairs. What handsome feet I have. In case you haven’t already figured this out, clicking on any of these pictures will cause a larger version to appear in a pop-up window.

amtk_lower_vestibule.jpg amtk_lower_vestibule_2.jpg
At the bottom of the stairs. The bags are full of dirty linen. Down that hallway you can see doors to the shower, a bathroom, and the Family Bedroom.

The Amtrak shower. The towels used to say ‘NPRC’ (for National Passenger Railroad Corporation, the True Name of Amtrak), but they don’t any more. I suspect that they were stolen too often. Note the large speaker on the wall, so you can’t escape the smooth jazz even in here.

Posted by tino at 15:08 30.11.04
Monday 15 November 2004

China’s Bright Market Future, Part XVII

I complain about China — or, rather, the mainstream perception of China as this bright land of incipient markets and prosperity — quite a bit. There’s a story in today’s Washington Post that perfectly illustrates the problems that I see with the place.

In Dazhou, the authorities have arbitrarily expired all the $10,000 taxi licenses, and told the cabbies to buy new ones. The taxi drivers are not enthusiastic about this.

The first time Liu Yu tried going to Beijing, she didn’t make it very far. Police in this quaint river city in western China boarded her train just a few stops after it departed, found her in a window seat in a crowded car and demanded she disembark.

For the next four days, the officers detained her at a police station, interrogating her about her trip, she recalled. But Liu, the wife of a taxi driver and a soft-spoken mother under normal circumstances, was defiant.

She told them she was angry about a plan to revoke all taxi permits in Dazhou and force cabbies to buy new ones. Like many others, she and her husband had gone into debt and spent their life savings to buy a permit. She was going to Beijing to appeal the city’s decision at the highest levels of the government.

Eventually, they make it to Beijing, where they’re effectively told to get lost. They stage a strike. They are, some of them, arrested. Eventually, they either cave in and buy new licenses, or they pursue some other line of business.

This is what ‘market reform’ looks like in much of China, I’m afraid. By selling licenses to private operators instead of just handing them out to cronies, the city raked in a lot of money. They like that market reform. But they don’t seem to understand that those licenses were a kind of property and wealth that had been created by the city, and that invalidating them for capricious reasons — from the Post story, it seems pretty clear that they just wanted to raise money, not make any serious change to the way taxis were licensed — just Wouldn’t Do.

Eventually, enough Chinese people will realize that the government there is running a shell game — if enough foreign investors don’t realize it first.

Posted by tino at 15:46 15.11.04
Wednesday 10 November 2004

How a ballot-receipt shouldn’t look

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing gushes with praise for one of Wired’s found objects from the future: a voting-machine receipt. The BB headline is ‘How a ballot-receipt should look’.

Er, except that it identifies the voter, and that it gives the voter’s ‘lifetime electoral win/loss ratio’, thus strongly suggesting that in Wired’s future, secret ballots are a thing of the past: you can’t calculate that batting average without maintaining a database, accessible to the voting machine, of how you’ve voted in the past.


And on top of that, the receipt doesn’t even directly show how you voted: there’s just a tracking number for each of your votes, and a note that you can ‘securely verify your votes online’ — which means that we would be right back where we started.

It’s an interesting thing, but if Doctorow really thinks that this is how the receipt should look, he should have his head examined. My guess is that he didn’t look too closely at the thing.

Posted by tino at 18:48 10.11.04

The Problem With Zoning, Part 735

The Montgomery County, MD council has approved zoning restrictions — unanimously — on ‘combination retail stores’, i.e. ‘discount’ stores of more than 120,000 square feet and with with grocery stores and pharmacies inside. This is effectively a special zoning restriction on Wal-Mart, though it affects a few other companies, too.

Montgomery County yesterday joined a growing list of jurisdictions around the country that have imposed tougher zoning restrictions on big-box retailers, marking a victory for unions and Giant Food LLC, which joined forces to lobby for the restrictions.

Now, a municipality trying to regulate Wal-Mart in some way isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Wal-Mart is blamed for causing ‘sprawl’ all the time, but in fact a Wal-Mart store is denser than most U.S. retail operations. A Wal-Mart has about the same floor space as a whole strip mall, but because there’s no space wasted on separating interior walls and multiple sets of restrooms and so forth, you’ve got more net selling space than you do with the same size building split up among multiple tenants.

Because of this greater net density, Wal-Marts cause traffic problems if they’re done wrong. As long as the county is in charge of building and maintaining roads, it makes sense for them to have a hand in determining suitable locations for Wal-Marts.

But that’s not what the recent vote in Montgomery County is about, at all. We didn’t have the county traffic engineer quoted in the story, talking about how they would manage to handle the customers’ cars. We didn’t have the county’s redevelopment poobah, pimping some blighted acres that might be profitable used as a Wal-Mart site. We had unions and Giant Food. The unions don’t like Wal-Mart because they don’t pay people $17 an hour to stock shelves, and Giant Food doesn’t like Wal-Mart because Giant is incapable of competing with them.

Before the vote, a couple of council members cited Wal-Mart by name. George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said he decided to support the bill after meeting with a local hardware store owner who begged him to keep Wal-Mart out of Montgomery County.

Ahh, land-use regulation. What fun. Home-improvement stores and ‘club membership’ stores are not covered under the law. The coalition of people who came together to protect Montgomery County from this scourge of inexpensive merchandise and entry-level jobs is impressive:

[County Executive Doug] Duncan lobbied members to vote for his proposal, his spokesman, David Weaver, said. He had help from Giant Food, which sent letters to the council supporting the proposed restrictions. Officials of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, meanwhile, organized labor, education and women’s rights advocates to testify with them in front of the council in October.

Got that? Unions and ‘education and women’s rights advocates’ are involved in making zoning decisions.

Posted by tino at 17:14 10.11.04
Friday 05 November 2004

Why I Am Glad George Bush Was Re-Elected

My political position can probably be best described as knee-jerk libertarian. By libertarian I mean that I believe that people’s best interests are best looked after by the people themselves, individually. And by knee-jerk I mean that I don’t just believe that the drug war is wrong, or that welfare is a boondoggle; I mean that public schools, public roads, public parks, and just about anything else done by the government is a bad idea.

For example, I don’t think that parks, or even the very parks owned and operated by the government are necessarily a bad idea: I just think that the government (or any government, with very few exceptions) is uniquely ill-suited to the role of owning and operating them. I’ll concede that there are some things that are done well — and some things that might be done best — by the government. But not only am I a knee-jerk libertarian, but I’m also (really) from Missouri. And so far nobody’s shown me anything that the government does uniquely well.


So I’m not a fan of that statist George Bush — yet I’m glad he’s won. And why is this? Because among his opponents are people like this:


Presumably by ‘Middle America’ this guy doesn’t mean Nebraska, Kansas, and so forth, but rather those parts of the country that voted for George Bush.

In which case, what he really means is “Fuck Everything But The Cities” — and fuck some of them, too. Here’s the county-by-county breakdown of the vote. A few places hadn’t been tallied when this map was produced. I believe that most of those places eventually went to Kerry:


So we’ve shifted from the Noisy Left complaining that Bush had been ‘selected not elected’ to the Noisy Left complaining that everyone that disagrees with them is stupid. I am glad that Bush was re-elected primarily because I fear the consequences of people like the young gentleman with the sign thinking that their philosophy is at all persuasive.

Isn’t one of the complaints of the Noisy Left that the GOP metaphorically says ‘Fuck You’ to whatever victim group is currently fashionable? If that’s true, at least it’s metaphorical. It would appear that there’s no room for such nuance from the Noisy Left.

But all kidding aside, I really do fear the Noisy Left, largely because they appear not to stand for any specific thing, but rather for any anti-American position, regardless of how absurd it might be.

In a thread on Slashdot yesterday a number of people even sighed wistfully when thinking about living in the People’s Republic of China instead of the evil, repressive United States. The mind boggles.

I think that most of these people have just not spent much time outside the United States (or, for those who are foreigners, not much time inside the United States). They all seem to be either enamored of ‘free’ health care or worried about jackbooted thugs hauling them off to jail for ‘dissent’. No amount of argument will convince them that socialist health care isn’t free at all, or that the real damage to civil liberties in the United States took place in the 1990s, under Clinton, as part of the drug war. No, it’s all about the Patriot Act, and in Europe somehow they convince physicians to work for no pay.

It’s entirely possible to be well-informed and still in favor of socialist health care and against George Bush, of course. I don’t think that socialist health care and high rates of taxation are a good idea, but someone else, with different priorities and experiences might look at precisely the same evidence and come to a different conclusion.

I don’t see evidence of this in too many of the arguments I’m reading lately, though. The Noisy Left readily understands that people who get all their information from the 700 Club are likely to be badly misinformed; but they don’t seem to really understand that Indymedia, The Guardian, etc. is the same thing but with a different bias. To them, Indymedia is bravely telling the Truth that the Corporate Media won’t let out of the bag.

And so they want to live in China, or at least a few of them do, to escape the repression.

dailymirror-bush-sm.jpg I think that the difficulty I’m having here is that the Noisy Left talks, noisily, a great deal about Tolerance and Diversity and Freedom and Civil Rights, when in reality they’re not for any of these things at all, at least as I understand them. They’re in favor of their own agenda, and little else. When their agenda is rejected, they assume that it’s not because people simply disagree with them (i.e. they do not Tolerate Diversity), but rather because the people on the other side are stupid, or malicious, or would-be theocrats, or whatever. The Noisy Left talks about the Bush administration’s supposed stifling of dissent while supplying no real evidence of same, but in fact they show, time and again, that they are themselves unwilling to tolerate dissent.

And so I think that the reason why I’m glad the Republican George Bush was re-elected is because the people on the other side are, by comparison, control freaks. Dare I say it? They are incipient Fascists. They’d reject this, of course, because they like to characterize their opposition as Fascists; but the truth is that the GOP is actually far less concerned with social control and homogenization than the Noisy Left. And that’s saying a lot, because the GOP by and large is very much in favor of government control of society.

I think that the Democratic Party will actually profit from this experience, will come to understand that Michael Moore and his ilk are in fact fringe players. This lesson might not be fully assimilated by 2008, but by 2012 I believe that there’s a good chance that the Democratic Party will be more in tune with reality. I hold out no similar hope for the Noisy Left, who are even now promising a civil war. That the Noisy Left is largely anti-gun will mean that this civil war is likely to be one of words, but I still don’t look forward to it.

Posted by tino at 20:14 5.11.04
Thursday 04 November 2004


Just what the hell is this supposed to mean? In a Post article about the dismay with which George Bush’s re-election is being greeted around the world:

“America has missed a great chance to reunite with the world,” said Graham Allen, a member of the British Parliament from the ruling Labor Party. “I fear the tragedy for all of us is that if America doesn’t reach out to its friends, then its enemies will reach out to America.”

Is he saying that a failure of the United States to bow to the will of its ‘friends’ — by which, I presume, he means the throbbing socialist proto-empire in Europe — the U.S. will be attacked by Arab terrorists? Does he mean to imply that Europe is able to influence whether violent attacks on the United States and on American interests will take place?

It’s a mistake to read too much into the bluster of a politician, but what people say in unguarded moments can be telling; and this seems to suggest that Graham Allen, at least, shares my view that the real nature of our current conflict involves the EU and the terrorists on, ultimately, the same side against the United States.

Posted by tino at 23:44 4.11.04

Software Upgrade & Flickr

Tinotopia has been upgraded to Movable Type 3 point something, which should be of absolutely no interest to you, the public. If you notice anything wiggy happening, particularly with comment posting, you might mention it.

In news that may actually be of use to you, I have stuck a few pictures on Flickr, and replaced the old phonecam picture on the main log page with a selection of recently-added Tino Flickr pics. The main impetus for having anything to do with Flickr — I generally don’t like having my data where it’s not 100% under my control — was that my mobile-phone carrier has started sticking their logo onto any pictures mailed from my phone. Dealing with this would have meant re-writing my auto-phonecam-posting script, which I am too lazy to do.

I’m still uneasy about not having those pictures on my own machine, but I have to say that Flickr’s software is pretty slick. Expect a lot more blurry, horribly low-res phonecam pictures in the future. I’ll bet you can hardly wait.

There’s also a Tino Flickr RSS feed, available here. Those of you using the Tinotopia Phonecam Feed should replace it with this.

Posted by tino at 21:38 4.11.04