Lost potential

subway

The past ten years have been an exceptionally big waste of human potential. (And I’d probably extend my assertion back even further if I knew more about world history.)

But since the financial crisis of 2008, access to capital (for governments or private companies) has been incredibly cheap and plentiful. Yet we haven’t invested significantly in public infrastructure, despite more than a decade worth of promises and proclamations. Elon Musk is one of the few people in the public sphere willing to make spectacular bets. (Or perhaps he’s just better at PR than his fellow crazy billionaires.)

If you want a hint of what this lack of investment feels like, just go for a ride on the NYC subway. Most of the cars and stations are living monuments to a time when we thought it was OK to spend money on big, crazy projects—like digging a gazillion tunnels underground and figuring out how to wire them with enough electricity to move a few thousand pounds of steel and flesh 100 miles under a river, 24/7. Part of me thinks that it’s great that these cars are old! It shows that good ol’ fashioned steel (not plastic!) can stand the test of time.

But the system isn’t keeping up with demand. The cars are packed with commuters and delays are the norm. The personal inconveniences I face every morning aren’t what I’m concerned about here; I do OK. My $2.75 subway ride is usually 20-30 minutes and everyone in my workplace faces the same delays and frustrations.

But every morning, I wonder what the subway could be like, and how that would make life more pleasant for the hundreds of thousands of NY commuters. It might encourage more investment or sway a few people from leaving the city. It could also start restoring people’s faith in public institutions, demonstrate that organizations can respond to change, create dynamic plans based on measurable objectives, and deliver some degree of improvement.

I suppose this is why it’s more fashionable to point to dictators as a desirable way of running a government. “What has democracy done for me, lately,” one might wonder.

I don’t endorse this selfish view of a sprawling and complex system like our democracy, which was designed to deliver a slow pace of change. But is it unreasonable? To hope for a different way, when the current trajectory and recent examples don’t make it likely that our institutions will rise to the challenge and deliver the things people want?

I don’t want to pass too much of the blame to social media; it’s an easy out. But Facebook and Twitter are really good at clustering people into like-minded groups, then feeding them niche stories that are likely to foster “engagement” (i.e. make them mad). It’s not even that the content is hyper-partisan or even false. The harm is in the curation. We don’t get a balanced daily media diet when so much of our news comes from social media. And that means we’re all the more likely to see the stories that push our buttons and offend our beliefs, which pushes us further away from each other, and further away from imagining a different way.

There’s a lot I’m leaving out here. I don’t have a conclusion. I’m just trying to flesh out my thoughts. Perhaps I’ll return to this topic on another day.

[photo cred]

Book Excerpts Taken from People on the Subway: Vol. 1

This is the first edition in my new series. The premise is simple.

The subway I take to work every day is packed with people.

One of my favorite pastimes is to look at what other people are looking at on their phones/Kindles. Sometimes I read along and type the words on their page into my phone as fast as I can. Since people read faster than I can type with one hand, the transcripts I’m able to record are incomplete. Here’s the first two installments in this series.

Other people

I thought with a little thump in my heart.

Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution.

And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring chaotic

My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick.

Her world was an aviary no larger than a living room.

Through all this the man was perfectly calm.

All at once I loved the man, and fiercely.

I grabbed the good from the box and turned to the hawk. It was the wrong bird.

This is really awkward, I began.

Gloria

Gloria Allred has no hobbies and few indulgences. She doesn’t cook. (“If I cook, I could be helping someone else during that time.”)

She maintains her stamina

Without caffeine, her equilibrium without

Alcohol. She lost interest in dating a long time ago.

Informative Traffic Haikus

They tried red lights, stop signs and crossing guards; nothing worked. Now the city of New York is bringing out the heavy artillery: traffic haikus. {npr}.

In a particularly colorful excerpt from the interview, artist John Morse gets worked up about the power of the project:

It’s fun because it’s dreadfully serious — the subject… And yet, you don’t have to bang people over the head.

Or do you?

And here’s a visual sample:

© John Morse/NYC DOT

The Philadelphia High Line?

high line

The NYC High Line — ©Kwong Yee Cheng

Didn’t know about this project:

The Reading Viaduct soars over the neighborhood just north of Philadelphia’s Center City… Elevated railroad tracks long abandoned and overgrown with vegetation, the Viaduct has many dreaming of a park along the lines of the High Line in New York, one of the biggest urban-renewal successes of the last decade.

Good interview with Philadelphia proponents and one of the original advocates for the NYC High Line {WHYY — Radio Times}.

I think it would be a clear win for the city to turn an abandoned structure into more green space (about 5 acres). It generated a ton of money ($millions) in new investment around the high line in NYC, so the Chinatown folks need to suck it up and get on board.

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