Railroad under the Bering Strait

I’m not totally sure what changed between 2007 and the other day, except the price, but Russia is again making noise about building a tunnel under the Bering Strait connecting Russia and Alaska. The price difference between 2007 and 2011? $33 billion (from $65 billion to $99 billion). I have a feeling the tunnel will never end up getting built, at least for travelers.

What’s really crazy to me, though is, it takes 18.5 hours to get from London to Moscow, but to get to the other side of Russia, Chita, it takes 106 hours. That’s wild.

(Via The Daily What and Mike Davidson)

Railroad under the Bering Strait

Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Can you believe I’ve never read a Sarah Vowell book? Or David Sedaris, for that matter?

This was a fun, light read. I can’t quite imagine the experience of reading this without having heard her on This American Life – I could hear her reading it aloud in my head. Her writing is pretty distinctive.

It’s a funny book, and yet Vowell clearly cares quite a bit. I respect that. There’s one passage that I want to quote at length, because it spoke to me, and expresses one of the reasons I’ve decided to change careers:

Once, headed uptown on the 9 train, I noticed a sign posted by the Metropolitan Transit Authority advising subway riders who might become ill in the train. The sign asked that the suddenly infirm inform another passenger or get out at the next stop and approach the stationmaster. Do not, repeat, do not pull the emergency brake, the sign said, as this will only delay aid. Which was all very logical, but for the following proclamation at the bottom of the sign, something along the lines of, “If you are sick, you will not be left alone.” This strikes me as not only kind, not only comforting, but the very epitome of civilization, good government, i.e., the the crux of the societal impulse. Banding together, pooling our taxes, not just making trains, not just making trains that move underground, not just making trains that move underground with surprising efficiency at a fair price—but posting on said trains a notification of such surprising compassion and thoughtfulness. I found myself scanning the faces of my fellow passengers, hoping for fainting, obvious fevers, at the very least a sneeze so that I might offer a tissue.

“If you are sick, you will not be left alone.” Is there a more important promise a government can make its people? Good stuff.

Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Cell Phones In the Sky

Apparently, the FCC is considering lifting the ban on cell phone use on airplanes. I’ll be honest, I don’t really have an opinion on this issue. I’ve always thought the “safety” argument was pretty ridiculous, since people accidentally leave their phones on all the time, and I don’t believe there’s ever been an instance of a wireless phone causing interference to an airplane’s instruments. Oh, look, I’m right:

One committee member questioned safety concerns raised by the FAA and DOJ. Although mobile phones are accidentally left on during potentially dozens of U.S. flights each day, no U.S. aircraft has ever found interference from phones, said Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican.

Thanks, Ted. Anyway, the remaining arguments against in-flight cell phone use are pretty weak. First, there’s the terrorist argument:

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told a House of Representatives subcommittee that wireless systems now being tested by two airlines could give terrorists a reliable link to friends on the ground, and mobile phones could be used by terrorists to remotely set off bombs on airplanes.

Riiiiight. Because the only thing stopping a member of al-Qaeda from using a cell phone to communicate with his buddies or to set off a bomb is the announcement from the flight attendant telling him to turn off his phone. “Sorry, Osama, our glorious martyrdom operation failed. The nice lady told me to turn off all electronic devices!”

I’m also annoyed by the “closing the barn door after the cow’s gotten out” philosophy that governs all airline security. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters? No nail files! Richard Reid had a bomb in his shoes? Take your shoes off! Al-Qaeda’s last attack in America involved airplanes? Time to freak out about airline security! The recent bombings in London were on subways and buses. I haven’t heard anything about plans to outlaw cell phones on subways, have you? I’m tired of our government’s perpetual desire to outlaw technologies just because they have illegal applications. So is Bruce Schneier, who knows what he’s talking about:

This is beyond idiotic. Again and again, we hear the argument that a particular technology can be used for bad things, so we have to ban or control it. The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for. Security is always a trade-off. Almost all technologies can be used for both good and evil; in Beyond Fear, I call them “dual use” technologies. Most of the time, the good uses far outweigh the evil uses, and we’re much better off as a society embracing the good uses and dealing with the evil uses some other way.

We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.

So, yeah, suck on it, DOJ.

The other, louder, argument against the use of phones on airplanes is that it would be annoying.

“If you’re on an airplane, it’s very annoying when you have a chatterbox sitting next to you, or a small child,” said Representative Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican. “I can’t imagine somebody sitting next to me talking in Arabic or some other foreign language on a cell phone for an hour-and-a-half flight.” Westmoreland didn’t explain why someone talking in another language would be more annoying to him than someone talking in English.

Yeah, I bet he didn’t.

Look, it’s not the role of government to outlaw things that are annoying. I’m sorry, but it’s not. It’s annoying when people talk on cell phones on trains and buses, in restaurants, and in frankly almost any public place. But that doesn’t mean it should be against the law.

Ok, I guess I have an opinion on this after all: that the ban should be lifted, but that individual airlines should be free to decide their own policies about cell phone use. But mostly I think that the law enforcement people should get their heads out of their asses, and that the people annoyed by people talking on cell phones should get an iPod.

Cell Phones In the Sky