Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Curious Case of Joe Lieberman

Over at Eschaton where I hang out, most of the regulars who have a dog in the fight are quite heavily into electing Ned Lamont to the US Senate in Lieberman's place. While I'm not a partisan Democrat (or a US citizen), I am quite supportive of the effort, on the grounds that Lieberman seems to hold some views I don't quite agree with. Some of this post might look like guilt by association to some people, but I'm trying to suggest that by lending his name, clout, and credibility to these endeavours, he's tacitly or explicitly endorsing them, and should therefore be unseated.

First of all, he votes with the Republicans an astonishing amount of the time. He voted for the resolution to authorise George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq. (Anyone not completely blinded by naivete could tell ante facto that authorising Bush to take military action against Iraq was akin to handing a loaded gun to a homicidal maniac.) He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. He backed the Republicans in their handling of the Terri Schiavo case. He's in favour of compromising with the Republicans on Social Security privatisation. (Guess he never heard Grover Norquist opine that "bipartisanship is date rape," huh?) He also supports censorship of various media, legal state executions (aka "the death penalty," what a charming euphemism) even for minors, NAFTA and so-called "free trade," school vouchers, and the policy of legally allowing hospitals to refuse to dispense emergency contraception to rape victims, which earned him the nickname "Short Ride Joe" in certain circles. He's also been making suspicious rumbling noises about leaving the Democratic Party and running as an independent should he lose the primary to Lamont.

Being Canadian, I'm all too familiar with what can happen in closely-contested multi-candidate races. The Premier of Ontario before the current one kept getting elected with what would be a losing vote percentage in a two-candidate (or two major candidate) race, if I recall correctly, in the 35% range. Having Lieberman run as an independent would surely split the vote, and who knows what the race would look like then?

I'd also like to point out another thing about Lieberman that I think puts him into suspect territory. He seems to hold some views which I think are very incompatible with a balanced US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Of course, Lieberman is Orthodox Jewish, which would tend to give him a slightly different view of Israeli and Palestinian issues than many politicians, and that's fine. One is allowed by law and custom in US politics (and elsewhere) to have one's politics shaped by one's religion and morality. All well and good. Where I draw the line is at his associating with Beged Ivri. At least, I am assuming he's associated with them, since his photo appears on their website, and they have a page of correspondence to and from him as well. If indeed he really is even somewhat sympathetic to their beliefs, it's problematic to say the least.

(For those of you who don't speak Hebrew, that means, literally, "Hebrew Garments." It may have an idiomatic meaning of which I am not aware; my comprehension of Hebrew is pretty basic -- I can follow the lyrics to a lot of popular songs, the kind about the cute boy down the block and/or cars and girls; I can read newspaper articles with a dictionary, and I can carry on a basic conversation, although I'm better at listening and reading than speaking and writing.)

So what is Beged Ivri? Well, according to their homepage, "Beged Ivri is the Levitical Ministry, established in 1983, for the research and restoration of ancient Israelite customs in preparation for rebuilding the Holy Third Temple in Jerusalem." That sounds kind of fun, in a way. I mean, I belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism, and I'm a pro-am historian (yes, I'm getting paid money to write about streetcars, how cool is that?!). I happen to think that dressing up in funny costumes and doing historical-type stuff (including research...lots and lots of research) is great fun. The problem is, Beged Ivri is, as near as I can figure, serious. They're not just doing this for shits and giggles on weekends, like the average historical recreation club. They really do want to restore ancient Israelite Temple Judaism, rebuild the Temple, and enact the appropriate halakha* to go with. Note the picture of Joe Lieberman displayed prominently on the Beged Ivri site, goofy costume and all.

There are numerous problems with Lieberman's (tacitly or explicitly) endorsing such a position, not the least of which is that the site of the former Temple is now the Dome of the Rock, which is an extremely holy site in Islam. All three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) consider the site to be of significant religious importance, which has helped fuel the ongoing religious and political conflict over the site. Right now it is a Muslim shrine; Beged Ivri, and, by extension, Lieberman, think that the Muslims (and likely the Christians) have no claim on the Temple Mount, and should therefore be expelled so the Temple can be rebuilt. Holy war! This factionalism also contributes to the disputed status of Jerusalem, where both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim the city as part of their (divinely promised) territory. This also entangles nicely with the Dominionist Christian view of the region, with which Lieberman is (perhaps paradoxically or naively) in sympathy.

The other problem is that this view is far, far outside the mainstream of most Jewish and especially Israeli thought. As seems to be the case, American Jews take a much harder line on many of these issues than do Israelis, probably because they don't have to coexist with the consequenses of their beliefs. As one Israeli friend of mine put it, "I am in favour of policies conducive to my continued survival." While there is no shortage of extreme and fringe elements in Israeli politics, they're usually moderated to a certain degree by a larger population that does not agree with their positions. That's not to say that Israeli politics are the pinnacle of virtue. Israelis seem to be politically obstinate, simultaneously conservative and extravagant, and a little bit prone to exceptionalism, which makes their sociopolitical makeup similar in some ways to both Canada's and the US'. All three countries have their extreme religio-political factions, and we've seen firsthand how disastrous it can be when they're in power.

In short, Lieberman holds a wealth of positions that seem contrary to the Democratic Party's broader interests, and may lapse over into harmful extremism. If Lamont should unseat him in the primary and eventually win Lieberman's Senate seat, it might improve the political complexion of the Democratic Party. (I'm pretty sure the Republicans are a lost cause.)

* Jewish religious law.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Words Mean Things -- Science Meets Art Meets Life

As the Rhetorician in Residence (or, as an old boss of mine likes to call me, the "Mistress of Metaphors"), I'd like to point out this brilliant post at Effect Measure talking about the difference, in the language of disease, between infectivity, pathogenicity, virulence, and transmissibility. If you boil the definitions right down, what you wind up with is a neat chain of interlocking explanations. It's all very dialectical.

Anyway, as Revere points out, infectivity is the precursor to pathogenicity. It refers to a virus' ability to get inside a cell and start cranking out copies of itself. As The Reveres explain, viruses are often picky about which kinds of cells they like to get inside:

If the host has a lot of different kinds of cells and tissues (as humans do), it is usual for the virus to restrict itself to one or a few types of cells. In humans, for example, the influenza virus seems to infect mainly cells within the respiratory tract and only some of the cells, at that.

Revere has talked before about which cells in particular various strains of influenza (for instance) seem to like, in exhaustive technical detail. Since I'm a rhetorician, dammit, not a biologist, I'll leave that for Revere (and while you're at it, go check out PZ Myers' Pharyngula).

Anyhow, even the ability of a virus to get inside a host cell and start using it to make print runs of itself doesn't guarantee that the host organism will be adversely affected. The ability to cause adverse effects -- disease -- in the host organism, is called pathogenicity. So, for instance, when you hear someone talking about a pathogen, they mean a disease-causing agent, but pathogenicity is also affected by extrinsic factors, like the host's health, the environment, and so on. As Revere says, "Pathogenicity (the ability to cause disease) is thus not something inherent in the virus but a combination of virus, host and environment." Some viruses can be quite infectious, but don't actually cause disease. (For instance, most cases of West Nile virus are asymptomatic, and up to 30% of influenza cases are, as well, which scares the crap out of me in the context of H5N1.)

However, if the organism does cause disease, whether it's mild or severe is a measure of its virulence. A virulent virus causes severe disease, a non-virulent virus causes mild disease. (For example, Ebola is virulent, but the common cold is not.)

And finally, Revere wants to remind us all that "pathogenicity is not the same as transmissibility. Transmissibility refers to the ability to pass from one person to another." Epidemiologists like Revere will be pleased to tell you how they measure transmissibility (using a value called an "R number"), but that's again tangential to the point.

The point being, of course, that nuance and specialised terminology exist for a reason, and careful writers (and speakers) should take care with language. Despite all the mocking around for quibbling over what the definition of "is" is, it's actually a good idea to be conscious and aware of language. The more self-conscious you are about your language, the more aware of it you become, the better you can present yourself to your audience, whoever that might be. If nothing else, it'll save you from becoming another Peter Beinart.

Friday, June 09, 2006

200 by 2010!

I just read an interesting article in today's Toronto Star, where the former head of the Toronto Transit Commission confirmed my point about dedicated trackage and rights-of-way. (Damn, I'm good.) For several obvious reasons, I think he's full of it when he says that Toronto's streetcar system should have been scrapped and rebuilt from scratch, but I do agree with him about rights-of-way and dedicated trackage. And here I thought I was going out on some kind of weird, albeit commonsensical, limb.

I wrote a letter to the reporter who wrote the article, through the Star's "Speak Out" feature, which has a forum specifically on this article. It will be interesting to see what, if any, response I get from the reporter or the paper. Here's the text of my letter:

Dear Mr. McGran,

I just read with interest your article about streetcars and
rights-of-way in Toronto. While I emphatically disagree with Mr.
Ducharme that scrapping and rebuilding Toronto's streetcar system
(probably the oldest surviving functional streetcar system in North
America) would have been a good move, I absolutely agree that
rights-of-way, both in traffic and on dedicated trackage, are
essential to a smoothly-running streetcar system.

I am the author of a forthcoming guide to the history and demise of
streetcar systems in North America. One of the key factors I
identified that helped kill off most cities' street railway systems
was the lack of dedicated trackage or right-of-way in traffic. The
loss of street railway and radial railway systems across North America was a devastating blow to urban life, culture, community, and the
environment. It would be a real shame if Toronto followed suit at
this late date, especially since many municipalities are now building
light rail, at considerable sink cost. It would be far more efficient
to keep and expand what Toroto already has -- especially since the
Toronto streetcars are custom-designed and absolutely unique in the

You can read more about streetcars, rights-of-way, and related issues
at my website [URL].

Thank you for bringing up this vitally important topic.


As I've reported previously, Toronto has 191.7 miles of streetcar tracks. I would like to propose a campaign to the TTC, whereby the TTC will extend existing streetcar routes incrementally, by maybe a mile or two at a time, over the next several years. Possible candidate routes are the 506 and 501 routes. (I will be writing more about this soon, ideally on the desktop computer which is in my office next to my paper copy of the TTC route map, which is on my office wall. Right now I'm being expectedly hedonistic and am in bed with the laptop.) Ideally, I'd like to see Toronto have 200 miles by 2010, or some other round number, and make a fuss about it. Torontonians have a lot of civic pride in their streetcars; use it.


Pocket Guide Update: I'm nearly finished the manuscript, which fills me with great joy. My publisher is having some slight financial difficulty at the moment, and is going to be returning to New York City from Portland, Oregon in about a week. However, despite all that, our intention is to have the guide appear more or less on schedule at the end of the month or in early July.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Built For Riders: Operations, Efficiency, and Streetcars

Author's Note: This is the second and final part of a series. The material here represents an excerpt from a longer work (in progress) to appear in print in late June. The material presented here may not appear in the final version in this form, and the formatting here has been optimised for online viewing.

In the previous installment, "Streetcar Suburbs and Trolleytrack Towns," I looked at the way the streetcar culture between about 1890 and 1955 or so shaped America's physical and mental landscape. One of the questions raised at the end was why the system worked. This intallment will talk about one of the reasons, albeit more from an operations and engineering than social perspective.

Part of the answer, and probably one of the most significant parts, is a pair of related principles -- rights-of-way and dedicated trackage. Giving streetcars dedicated tracks or the right-of-way in traffic had various purposes – to free the streetcar from traffic gridlock and to ease passage by other vehicles on the street which might otherwise be stuck behind streetcars; to allow streetcars to space themselves out and not get forced by traffic into groups, and, in areas where there was dedicated trackage, to allow the streetcars to move rapidly over long distances between stops.

Dedicated Trackage: Dedicated trackage functions in streetcar systems two ways – either it runs in the street in its own separate lane, or else it runs separately from the roadway, typically over long distances, as in interurban streetcar lines. In particular, Toronto (where streetcars have remained continually in service for over a century), has several routes operating partially on private rights-of-way, usually in the median of a street and separated by raised curbs. Most of these private rights-of-way are newly established (and a political battle continues as of this writing over private right-of-way for streetcars on St. Clair Ave.), but one street, the Queensway, has featured private streetcar right-of-way since 1957. This feature keeps the streetcars (and streetcar riders) out of the way of automobiles, and automobiles out of the way of streetcars.

(Toronto has managed to keep its streetcar system and culture intact since the 19th Century, despite attempts in the 1970s to scrap the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcar service altogether. The author suggests that two factors may have kept the streetcars running in Toronto, namely the aesthetics of the custom-designed CLRV and ALRV cars, created specifically to suit both the practical and cultural ethos of the city; and the extensive penetration of streetcars in southern Toronto, which provide most of the surface transportation for the downtown area and inside the original city limits. Toronto boasts 305.8 km/191.7 miles of streetcar lines over eleven routes. Given that the streetcars are both useful and beautiful, and unique to the city – in part because Toronto’s streetcars run on a track gauge that is 6cm/3 3/8” wider than the standard – massive public outcry forced the Toronto Transit Commission to reconsider, and the streetcars remain.)

Toronto’s streetcar system is likely the oldest surviving functional streetcar system in North America, although it is modest in scope compared to many of the systems in the US (and Canada, to a lesser degree), which connected municipalities through a network of fast, efficient streetcar lines. Probably the most famous and emblematic streetcar system ever was Pacific Electric’s Red Car lines. Part of the reason the Red Car in Los Angeles and its surrounding municipalities became the largest and most successful streetcar system in North America, if not the world, was that it ran on its own dedicated trackage, often completely divorced from the roadways. This system eliminated the problems street railways had in the absence of right-of-way in traffic, where the streetcars simply contribute to traffic congestion. Archival footage from some of the last surviving Red Car lines shows a streetcar sweeping down a curving expanse of track surrounded by trees and green space, the rail equivalent of driving down one of Robert Moses’ parkways in their early days, before they became clogged with traffic.

Giving streetcars their own rights-of-way has currency outside of modern Toronto and historic LA, however. In 1993, Joseph DePlasco (then director of public affairs for New York City’s Department of Transportation) and Janette Sadik-Khan (then director of the New York City Mayor’s Transportation Office) wrote an op-ed in Newsday outlining a proposed plan for revitalising transit in NYC, harkening back to the golden age of infrastructure projects in the city, the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Part of their list of proposals includes “reconstruct[ing] bridges to carry trains and to rebuild major corridors, such as 42nd Street, to carry trolleys along a dedicated right-of-way.” The current light-rail system in Minneapolis enjoys dedicated trackage and precedence at rail-roadway intersections. Similarly, the Pasadena Gold Line system has entirely dedicated trackage, which runs from LA to Pasadena along “right-of-way formerly occupied by the Pasadena Subdivision of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway,” according to Parsons, an engineering subcontractor for the project. The Gold Line evokes the old Red Car lines, although it doesn’t repeat them – the new rail doesn’t run along the same tracks.

Right-of-Way in Traffic: The other way to avoid streetcars’ contributing to and suffering from traffic jams is to give streetcars the right-of-way in traffic, similar to the way some jurisdictions now require cars to yield to buses pulling into traffic away from bus stops. Interviewee testimony from Klein and Olson’s documentary on streetcars and traffic, Taken For A Ride, suggests that in the early years of the 20th Century, streetcars had roadway precedence over automobiles in many places. Not only did traffic have to stop at intersections of dedicated streetcar tracks, as still happens with rail today, but drivers were required to yield to streetcars and provide them a clear path (headway) down the tracks.

Recent developments in the analysis of traffic patterns and the physics of traffic flow (similar in some ways to fluid dynamics) suggests that regulating rights-of-way and integrating streetcars actually reduces traffic congestion and increases overall traffic speed. (For a brief overview with bibliography, see "The Physics of Traffic," Physics World, August 1999.)

Interviews in Klein and Olson’s film also suggests that changing the laws (or implementing new ones which specified precedence in the first place) so as to take away right-of-way from streetcars helped blur the differences between them and buses, which were ultimately to replace them in most places, since a streetcar without right-of-way in traffic basically becomes a bus on rails.

Of course, once you have streetcars reduced to buses on rails, you can sell actual buses on the grounds that they're more flexible, fit in better with existing traffic, free up road space and overhead (no tracks or wires required!), and are (arguably) cheaper to operate. Still, even that wasn't straightforward, and required an awful lot of selling, but at the rates of profit to be had, there were more than enough eager salesmen around...


This concludes the series on streetcars. The full-length work should appear in late June, and a parallel piece specifically on transit history in my hometown may be forthcoming, to appear online and possibly in print. Likewise, my publisher and I intend to set up a website with supplemental material. Further information will appear on the blog when it becomes available.