— Andrew Todd
In September of 2001, I was just beginning my senior year of high school, still ensconced in my prep school’s pastel, stained-glass world; it was a place for academics, where televisions would have ordinarily been rare but for that day.
At some point in the morning, we were quickly called into assembly to notify us that there had been an apparent attack in New York and Washington, and that there was little further information, but a television would be placed in the Commons Room.
And then, my teachers did something brilliant, that I have appreciated more and more to this day. They kept teaching.
We returned to class. I was taking one of the most popular senior electives, a semester-long intensive study of Dante’s Divine Comedy with our superstar English teacher. But he had long since chosen to start the semester with a reading of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed — a book he felt had spiritual connections to the Commedia — and we spent the rest of the period as we would have anyway, discussing the dimensions of grief, its immediacy and eventual, necessary fading. Universals that applied to the day, certainly.
Later in the day, I have distinct memories of my history teacher asking the class a series of questions that were incredibly prescient, given events of the ten years since then. “Who is a ter-ror-ist,” he asked, sounding out the syllables to emphasize the construction of the word, “and what makes one a ter-ror-ist?” “Is this war?” He immediately saw what it took years for me and so many other people to realize: this was an act that largely took on its meaning through our own reaction to it, and there were no foregone conclusions to make about what action was necessary. He was a voice of reason, debating patiently with his students who were already seeking blood, clouded by fear.
Looking back after ten years, I remember that day well, and I remember the pain and shock. I remember watching news reporters running down the street in terror as clouds of dust and debris rushed towards them. I remember city officials appearing on the Today Show covered in that dust, working as fast as they could to get information on the air. And, of course, I remember the dead.
But, first and foremost, I remember my teachers, for what they didn’t do. They treated the day as what it was, one among many, a new variation on an old pattern of life. Tragedies come in many forms: who is to say that the shock of that day merits more recognition than the thousands of highway deaths each year, or the cancer deaths we give ourselves by burning coal rather than using nuclear power, or the tragedies perpetrated overseas by those who still believe in “American exceptionalism” when it comes the use of violence as a tool of state policy? It’s important to remember, but it’s just as important to forget; there is no other way to live together. This was a lesson from A Grief Observed, applied just as well to that day as to any other.
After school, we went home, we went to dinner with our families, and the next morning we went to school again. Life continues anew, and that is the most important lesson to learn.
— Andrew Todd
Outspoken traveler (and inspiration for my North Korea trip) Paul Karl Lukacs explains how being a digital nomad isn’t without negative dangers. While he’s largely right, I will comment that your employability post-travel largely depends on overall demand for your profession. During travel, unless you’re already an independent worker, good luck finding someone to let you work remotely and — inevitably — erratically.
Meanwhile, over at The Smart Set, Jessa Crispin points out that travel isn’t necessarily life-changing or incredibly deep. And here it is:
There are things that extensive travel teaches you, such as how not to be afraid, or at least how to tell the difference between times you should have fear and times there’s no need for it. It teaches you how to discard things you don’t need, whether that be a couple of shirts so you can bring back all the books you bought, or your need for security and certainty. Using that information in everyday life is the tricky part. I’m not saying it should not be done, that it’s a worthless exercise. Travel is a choice. You go or you don’t. Staying at home offers as many opportunities for growth and transformation and brain rewiring and whatever other trademarked terms you’d like to use here. If you’re the type of person who is more scared of staying home than wandering back out there, it perhaps holds more.
And she’s right. I think that there’s many reasons to travel, and doing it with the intention of having some life-changing experience is asking for trouble, or trying to justify what is ultimately just a lifestyle choice by giving it needless spiritual overtones.
Meanwhile, the BBC notes that one in six Dutch clergymen in the mainstream Protestant denominations identify themselves as either agnostic or atheist. They have shifted their focus to justifying the existence of the church as a positive social institution, which it can be. But, then, why limit their purview to Christianity, rather than move towards a scientifically-informed church of secular humanism?
Coincidentally, USA Today just carried a well-written editorial from a biologist, explaining how atheists can be moral. That this idea has made it to USA Today hopefully demonstrates that these ideas, first introduced to me years ago in books like Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, are gaining traction in the mainstream of American thought.
— Andrew Todd
Otakon is my home anime convention, the second biggest anime convention in the US, and three days of non-stop fun for me. I haven’t missed it in seven years; last year, I flew in from Singapore to attend. As always, it’s obvious that it’s run by fans, for fans, even now that it’s over 31,000 people bringing fifteen million dollars to Baltimore. And, so, this is a bit of an anemic convention report for what is really such an amazing event.
As usual, I was cosplaying David Tennant’s Doctor. The number of Doctor Who cosplayers at Otakon seems to be growing every year: and, why not? The show’s writing and acting continues to improve with every season, and there’s nearly fifty years of history behind it now. Who cares if it’s not Japanese? Britain’s an island country, too.
This picture and many more fantastic cosplay images were taken by James Patterson, and are available on Flickr.
The panel that I co-hosted on Friday night went quite well; 375 people showed up to ask, “Evangelion, WTF?” Eva Monkey is really the driving force behind these; over on his website you can see much of the content that was shown during our hour of power.
Meeting master animator and director Makoto Shinkai was pretty amazing, as well. He’s humble to a fault, and went out of his way during the autograph session to find out every person’s name, and have a brief conversation with them. He stayed for hours longer than he was scheduled to in order to make sure we would all get to meet him. The next day, we became one of the first audiences outside of Japan to see his new film, Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below.
He said during the post-film Q&A (which he volunteered to do on the spot) that he wanted to make a film that would appeal more to the international market than his previous works. Personally, I thought that 5 Centimeters Per Second touched on some pretty universal themes, but it is nice to see him move on and try a new mode of storytelling: Children is an adventure film, not a series of reflective vignettes like 5 Centimeters.
All the usual con activities and sights were in full force as well, from Nyan Cat cosplayers to sweeping every booth in the dealers’ hall. The rest of my small set of pictures are available in 2D and 3D over at my image gallery.” As always, an incredible and intense weekend — I’ll be back for 2012.
— Andrew Todd
Sort of an off week. Perhaps these books haven’t changed the world, but they revolutionized my point of view on the world, much more so than better-known pop science books like Freakonomics or Blink.
Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate
Prior to this book, Pinker was primarily known for his popular-science books on the inner workings of the mind, and particularly its relationship with language. He’s a professor of psychology at Harvard, having spent much of his career studying cognitive neuroscience at MIT.
But The Blank Slate is something different: it aggressively makes the case that much of our behavior is inherited, rather than a product of environment or somehow handed down through a “spirit” separate from the body, as in Cartesian dualism — but that’s just the beginning. By the end of the book, he has made a compelling case for secular humanism, based on the argument that this genetic, tangible base for the human condition makes seemingly abstract concepts like love even more real than any religion can claim them to be. Knowing these facts of our existence, he asks, how should we live? Rather than nihilism, he finds a much richer experience in a humanist, atheist world.
John Dunn’s The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics
This is one of the most intellectually dense books I have ever read; one of the few that has made me reach for my dictionary, or read sentences over and over again to grasp their full meaning. There are pages in this book that have more content and insight than whole textbooks. Dunn studies in turn many different models of human society, building slowly his argument that the search for a perfect system is ultimately futile. But, trite as it may seem, the seven hundred or so pages effectively boil down to one of the most compelling arguments ever made that representative democracy isn’t great, but it’s far better than anything else ever attempted.
Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
What happens when there’s no more scarcity — even of life? Doctorow’s novel begins with the cure for death, the end of money, and the society that is built afterwards. It’s the ultimate unstated goal of modern society, but what would you do with a few extra centuries, and the Earth at your doorstep? How does human nature cope with those possibilities, and what becomes most valuable?
Best of all, this one is actually free to read online, at Cory Doctorow’s website.
Ok, here’s a Fourth Book
Finally, an honorable mention to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I just finished reading. It’s remarkable for its ability to place the aspirations of humans in the context of the workings of our home here on Earth.
— Andrew Todd
I don’t have a definitive answer, but recently I was planning a trip to New York, and came across some incredible numbers. Both BoltBus and Amtrak depart from Baltimore Penn Station, and arrive at New York’s Penn Station. (The bus stop is a few blocks away from each).
The Amtrak’s high-speed Acela takes two hours, fifteen minutes, and costs at least $134.
The BoltBus takes three and a half hours, costing $15.
Both of these are demand-based prices, but the ratio remains effectively the same: for an extra hour of travel time, BoltBus is one-tenth the price of Amtrak. How is this possible?
Let’s look at the revenue for a BoltBus filled to capacity — that’s about fifty seats. If those tickets sold for an average of $15, then that’s $750 gross income for the busload. Credit card costs will probably knock about 5% off of that, so you’re already down to $710. According to Wikipedia, that coach bus will get about six miles for each gallon of diesel fuel. It’s 190 miles to New York, so that’s 32 gallons of diesel, or about $128 in fuel. Tolls wil probably add another $35 or so, so let’s say that leaves about $650 of that income. It’s hard to say what BoltBus pays their personnel, but the driver will probably cost another $200 at most. Now there’s $450 to cover equipment, maintenance, marketing, the website, and, most importantly, half-empty buses.
These are scarily thin margins, but not impossible. And it’s obvious, of course, that Amtrak has to deal with far greater infrastructural overhead. But trains are more fuel-efficient; they can hold considerably more people, and have appealing advantages in speed and comfort. Should there really be an order-of-magnitude difference in prices?
The first order of business is figuring out if Amtrak is overpriced. Let’s compare it against the Japanese shinkansen or “bullet train” system: the trip from Tokyo to Nagoya is about 220 miles and well-traveled, much like the Baltimore-New York run. The Japanese trains generally don’t do demand-based pricing: you can get the same deal walking up to the counter and hopping on the train the day of the trip as you can two months in advance (and there is often extra space to do so). Hyperdia tells me that the fare would be 6,090 yen, about $75 — so, yes, Amtrak is overpriced. Vastly so, in fact. (And the shinkansen is considerably faster).
But that’s still a fivefold difference from BoltBus. Threefold, if you consider BoltBus’s maximum price of about $25. What’s making up the difference?
My guess is that it’s in the externalities. Making that drive from Tokyo to Nagoya in Japan would cost eighty dollars in highway tolls, according to http://search.w-nexco.co.jp/ calculator. It could easily top $100 if you have to cross one of the major bridges across Tokyo Bay. Compare this to $15 or $20 in the US, less if the driver makes an effort to avoid toll roads. Then factor in America’s gas and diesel taxes, which are just about the lowest in the developed world. These taxes don’t even cover the cost of the interstate highway system, let alone the environmental and social impact of motor-vehicle dependence. Suddenly, it seems clear why BoltBus is so cheap: it’s taking advantage of what is effectively a huge public subsidy that favors motor vehicles over all other forms of transport.
And people wonder why Amtrak is so expensive.