Field of Science

Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer

This morning, Slate is running a bizarre feature on transportation. Cities and transportation are in crisis, we're told, and we need new ideas to solve problems of traffic, efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. We need new ideas to solve the problems of our cities "and so we need new visions for the city."

Alternatively, we could just build what so many cities around the world already have. The article mentions free Wi-Fi in buses (don't we already have that?). A few months ago, I had lunch with a professor from a university in Switzerland. He had recently moved to that university from another university a good 1-2 hours drive away. With his kids in school and a wife with a job, he didn't want to move them. Luckily, there was a high speed train with working Wi-Fi (take that, Bolt Bus!) that only took about an hour each way, so he was commuting in, working on the train both directions.

In Hong Kong, you can check your luggage in at a station in the city center up to 24 hours before your flight. You only have to hop on the express train to the airport just before your flight, so you can enjoy downtown without your luggage on the day you head out of the city. Also downtown in Hong Kong, incidentally, they've built a pedestrian street one floor above the vehicular street, so that pedestrians can walk to and from offices and shops without getting in the way of the traffic -- safer and more convenient.

Anyone who has spent much time traveling abroad knows that the US transportation system is a good half century (or more) behind the more developed parts of the world. Even where our transportation is technologically on par (e.g., of places I've lived, Spain and Russia), it often works better, runs faster and has more geographic coverage. There are many ideas out there -- most of them not new -- that work very well in other countries. So any real discussion would not be about finding clever new ideas, but figuring out how to implement them in the US.


This brings up a different question: what happened to Slate? Some years ago, it was the first place I turned for news, but the quality has steadily declined. Some of it is just attrition (e.g., the sublime and irreplaceable movie critic David Edelstein was "replaced" by Dana Stevens). The science coverage has been turned over largely to William Saletan who -- bless his heart -- tried very hard, but simply doesn't know enough about science to understand what he's writing about, leading to articles that are either shallow or just wrong (see here and here). Not that shallow science writing is a problem specific to Slate.

Slate's travel writing used to be incredible, written by interesting folks with deep, deep knowledge of the places they were visiting. So several years ago, when I pitched a piece to Slate about the Trans-Siberian railway, I assumed I never got a response because despite a couple years in Russia, I wasn't up to their level of expertise. Recently, though, Slate's ad critic (generally one of my favorite writers) posted an article about his trip on the Trans-Siberian, written with detailed horror of life in Russia (which he can only observe from a distance, since he's afraid to ride in platskart, which he describes as "P.O.W." camp, but which is more accurately called "a party which begins in Moscow and ends 7 days later in Vladivostok"). Though, in Stevenson's defense, the article wasn't nearly so bad nor so clueless as Daniel Gross's description of his visit to Japan, during which he discovered (wow!) that the Japanese really like things written in English.

Seriously, Slate -- I expect better.

No comments: