Mid-week misanthropy, vol. 52

So apparently I haven’t written one of these since October.


We begin with this post from Coyote Blog, wherein the myth of passenger rail travel gets skewered once again:

In reaction to Joel Epstein’s giddy obsession with the People’s Republic of China and its massive state-run infrastructure projects, Coyote writes:

Epstein, like [Thomas] Friedman, seems to think that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds much more stuff.  We are “asleep.”  Well, I have a big clue for him.  Most of the great progress in this country was built when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  –  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

Epstein in particular thinks we need to build more trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that Epstein in fact does not have the dictatorial powers he longs for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

(Emphasis in the original.  That first “[Thomas] Friedman” link goes to my comments on the Friedman article with which Epstein seems to be enamoured, and is not in the original.  I’m tricky that way.)

Freight rail, as Coyote explains, is an efficient — and profitable, which if you’ve been keeping score from home means that people like it enough to pay the full cost and more without being compelled to do so — way to move large chunks of stuff.  Passenger rail, on the other hand… not so much:

Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make an energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

I think people like Epstein look at electric passenger high-speed rail and marvel at how clean it all is.  No big clunky internal-combustion engines, no clouds of diesel exhaust or towers of sooty smoke; just the startup whine of beefy transmissions clearly audible over the whisper of electric motors.  It’s all very space-age* and inspiring.

Look how clean that electric power is!

Where did you think electricity came from?  Unicorn farts?

Now take a look at that coal-fired power plant, and consider that better than three quarters of the power produced thereby is spent heating up transformers and power lines.  That high-speed train from Pudong into Shanghai really makes sense now, doesn’t it?


Meanwhile, Pat Robertson is still an asshole:

I shit thee not.

The Rev. Pat Robertson, on his CBN broadcast today, offered his own explanation of the earthquake in Haiti:

“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it,” he said. “They were under the heel of the French … and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’

“True story. And the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal,'” Robertson said. “Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

Stay classy, Pat.


In other news, Derek Lowe takes it to a pair of tin foil-coiffed hysteria-mongers:

First, Dr. Lowe savages a British health blogger who suggests that teh ebil pharma industry will suppress a paper suggesting that cell phone emissions could have a beneficial effect on Alzheimer’s patients.  See, they want to keep selling you their existing, profitable drugs, which is why they’re sinking millions into research on new Alzheimer’s drugs… uh, wait; that doesn’t make sense, as the good Dr. points out.

Next, he tees off on an excitable German politician who insists that the swine flu scare was a “manufactured epidemic” designed by teh ebil pharma industry to sell more Tamiflu.  Dr. Lowe objects:

The World Health Organization is now fielding questions about whether they oversold the epidemic, but it’s a sure bet that (if it taken off more drastically) they’d be fielding even more about why they weren’t prepared for it. At any rate, if you think that the Monolithic Drug Industry can simultaneously push around the WHO, the CDC, and the public health agencies of every other country in the world, I invite you to think again. If we could do all that, we’d at least be in good enough financial shape that we wouldn’t be laying thousands of people off and doing ridiculous mergers out of desperation.

Commenter “You’re Pfizered” elaborates:

When H1N1 was starting to make itself known, the world was begging pharmaceutical companies to get on the train and save the world. Now we are the producers of a false pandemic to make even more money. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s not quite as bad as the mythology that we all have the cure for cancer locked in our ELNs, but don’t want to give it out for fear of killing the golden goose….

But never mind the circumstances: prevailing wisdom is that drug companies are villainous cesspools of festering evil, and prevailing wisdom has never been wrong before.  Has it?


Finally, well….

James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.On the fan forum site “Avatar Forums,” a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. The topic became so popular last month that forum administrator Philippe Baghdassarian had to create a second thread so people could continue to post their confused feelings about the movie.

“Depression and suicidal thoughts.”  Over a science-fiction movie that has the gall to be fictional.

I say we ship these people a 60ct bottle of Valium and a fifth of vodka and get them the fuck out of the gene pool.  I’ll kick in twenty bucks; who’s with me?


* Yes, I know that the space age was somewhere between 1960 and 1990, and yes, I did that on purpose


7 Responses to “Mid-week misanthropy, vol. 52”

  1. 1 aczarnowski
    January 14, 2010 at 07:46

    I’d kick in a $20.

  2. 2 Steve
    January 17, 2010 at 15:20

    The truth is that they did make a pact with the devil.

    Now the significance you put on that pact I guess has to do with whether you believe the devil is real or not.

    But it is one of Haiti’s founding myths.


    According to Haitian national history, the revolutionary war was launched on the eve of a religious ceremony at a place in the north called Bwa Kayiman (Bois Caiman, in French). At that ceremony on August 14, 1791, an African slave named Boukman sacrificed a pig, and both Kongo and Creole spirits descended to possess the bodies of the participants, encouraging them and fortifying them for the upcoming revolutionary war. Despite deep ambivalence on the part of intellectuals, Catholics, and the moneyed classes, Vodou has always been linked with militarism and the war of independence and, through it, the pride of national sovereignty.

    So, yeah if there is a devil, Haiti made a pact with it. Might explain why even though Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island, the Dominican Republic has been far more successful.

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