Tag Archives: Politics

The Biggest Subway Systems in U.S. and the World

washington-dc-subwayI went to Washington DC yesterday for a conference to give a talk and listen to a bunch of talks on the topic of cognitive networking.

What I like most about Washington DC for some strange reason is its metro system. The architecture is a mix of something from the 1950’s and the 2050’s, and the design of the system itself is intuitive despite the large size. I think that’s what draws me to public transit when I travel to big cities across the world: the chance to observe city planning at its best or worst. I like to see how people deal with the incredibly complex network of transportation that is required to make a big city work.

That brings me to the numbers… It’s sad to see how badly U.S. is getting spanked in terms of subway ridership in it’s largest cities. NYC barely makes it in the top 10 and our second largest (Washington DC) is in 50th place. I’m not sure if this is a result of culture, geography, or just bad planning and design, but I hope it changes. I believe that a strong public transit system is one of the key ingredients that help a big city prosper.

Top 10 Metro Systems in the World (by ridership)

  1. Tokyo: 3.1 billion
  2. Seoul: 2.5 billion
  3. Beijing: 2.5 billion
  4. Moscow: 2.4 billion
  5. Shanghai: 2.3 billion
  6. Guangzhou: 1.8 billion
  7. New York City: 1.7 billion
  8. Mexico City: 1.6 million
  9. Hong Kong: 1.5 billion
  10. Paris: 1.5 billion

Top 10 Metro Systems in the United States (by ridership)

  1. New York City: 1.7 billion
  2. Washington DC: 281 million
  3. Chicago: 231 million
  4. Boston: 165 million
  5. San Francisco: 123 million
  6. Philadelphia: 98 million
  7. Newark and Jersey City, NJ: 70 million
  8. Atlanta: 70 million
  9. Los Angeles: 48 million
  10. Miami: 19 million

Sources: for the world, for the United States.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
– Thomas Jefferson

Today, July 4, marks 237 years since our Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, a document full of radical notions, born out of oppression like all good pieces of writing. Between the beer, the food, and the fireworks today, steal a few minutes to read the poetic brilliance of its 1300 words: Declaration of Independence.

immigrants-on-a-boatJuly 4 also marks 18 years since the four-man operation we call the Fridman family made their way across the Atlantic ocean. I don’t recollect signing any declarations, certainly no declarations of independence, but we did follow in the spirit of “the pursuit of happiness”.

Revolution is just a dramatic word for change. It emphasizes the fact that change is painful. But ultimately change is good, whether it’s the struggle of millions against the forces of tyranny, or the struggle of one to lose a couple pounds in order to look sexier in a bikini.

I’m almost done reading Unbroken. It’s a story of survival through Japanese POW camps during World War II. Even there, where the hope seems gone, rare glints of happiness can be found through small acts of defiance (often at the cost of severe punishment).

Our Response to the Next 9/11 Magnitude Terrorist Attack

911-terrorist-attackFor me, the attack of 9/11, 2001 did not arouse feelings of anger as it did in many of my fellow Americans. I was simply deeply saddened, the same as after the recent shooting in the Sandy Hook elementary school. Perhaps because of this feeling, the military response in the next 12 years (in my view) was at best flawed and at worst irrational. Many of my friends disagree. I think it boils down to how you see the world, the arc of history, and the best way to defend against and deter future violence.

These days, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have lost any semblance of support among the majority of the American public. But I believe that support can be reignited in a single day of another tragedy. In the rare times when I tune into a video of a MSNBC/Fox/CNN take on a particular subject, I worry that the mechanism of popular media is equipped to stir and ride waves of hysteria. In a perfect world, the media would provide a calm voice of reason: the facts, the context, the several distinct ways to interpret the current events. But in this aspect, we do not live in a perfect world. I fear that any tragedy of the magnitude of 9/11 terrorist attacks will create another state of temporary insanity among the masses. I include myself in that obviously. Anger, sadness, fear can all be exploited intentionally or unintentionally (through institutionalized momentum).

It’s been said by many people in the last 10 years, but our government on many levels is lacking the mechanism to protect us against ourselves when we are in such states of “temporary insanity”. If another big terrorist attack happens on U.S. soil there should be a set of laws that tie the hands of Congress and the president to slow any drastic action and allow a cooling-off period allowing at least a brief chance for rationality and long-term interest of the public to prevail.

Do Not Cut Research Funding, Double It

nih-research$85 billion in federal spending cuts hit last week. In an attempt to gain the nation’s attention, a lot of the politicians and media outlets over-dramatized the short-term impact of these cuts. There will be some jobs lost, there will be some pay cuts, but in general the majority of the negative consequences will be in the long term.

I said it before many times, so I’ll just quote a recent Reuters article by Gabriel Debenedetti and Peter Rudegeair:

Federally funded, university research has long been a major engine of scientific advancement, spurring innovations from cancer treatments to the seeds of technology companies like Google.

Somehow investing into the future by starting a bunch of research projects that pursue some wild ideas doesn’t seem to be something that’s easy to sell to the general public. In fact, any kind of long term investment seems to be a hard sell, because it’s basically asking people to pay now for stuff they won’t get sooner than a decade from now.

We are $511 billion behind China in research investment. That might not mean much today, but in 10, 20 years, it will mean a huge shift in technological and economic power from the west to the east.

North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan: Rhetoric Versus Reality

north-korea-an-absurd-display-of-aggressionWe have to be very careful listening to political leaders who make wildly aggressive statements. Foreign policy is a game of poker not a game of chess. There’s a lot of uncertainty and thus a lot of room for playing with degrees of truth. Bold public announcements do not necessarily represent any real intent for action. It may be nothing more than a posturing for leverage in international relations or even just fodder for the internal propaganda machine.

Yesterday, North Korea has threatened a nuclear attack on the United States in the name of world peace. Hitler produced some of the same rhetoric in the mid and late 1930’s. He claimed that military power was a way to defend Germany of “evil” that was preventing a peaceful prosperous existence.

So, how can we tell the difference between Hitler and Kim Jong-un? It’s seems that the general public in the United States does not take the young North Korean leader seriously, much like the majority of Americans did not take Hitler seriously until the war began. I think that we have to (1) gather the best facts/intelligence and (2) use extreme caution in making any aggressive actions. We failed on both #1 and #2 in Iraq. We are failing on #1 and #2 in Iran. Pakistan is incredibly tricky because technically they are a “friend”, but the instability and tension in that part of the world means that of all the nations they are currently the most likely original spark of a nuclear war.

So we need to be very careful to get #1 and #2 right on North Korea. Arguments like the ones made in this report are a good start. It describes why North Korea is powerless to do what it claims. Much like in poker, that means there is some wiggle room for the game of diplomacy. Time for the carrots and the sticks…

Let It Go: The Incentive to Resolve Conflict

In academia, in politics, in life, I often see two intelligent adults build a rift over a disagreement (large or small), fail to resolve it, and continue for the rest of their life with the rift in place.

It’s ego. It’s human nature. But it makes life more difficult. My advice (to myself and others) is to always let it go no matter what. Linger in the muck of anger for a few days, take a few naps, and then patch up the damaged relationship in whatever way that it will no longer be an anchor on your mind. The weight of conflict can take away the freedom to enjoy this short life and to form meaningful friendships along the way.

In politics, shallow bickering seems to be the modus operandi. Somehow it has become a commonly accepted notion that conflict helps win elections. Showing what someone else did badly is more effective than showing what you did well. Perhaps that might be the case in politics, but I still hold out hope for the personal interactions of regular human beings. There are very few conflicts I can imagine that cannot be resolved through a little swallowing of pride. It might hurt for a day, a week, a month, but it will make life more enjoyable, more productive, and more meaningful in the long term (years, decades).

I’m often reminded of the Borat clock radio “great success”:

There will always be someone with a clock radio that you can’t afford. Let it go.

Cut Research Funding and There Will Be No iPhone 6

Scientific and technological innovation is the fuel in the engine of our economy. Everyone knows it, everyone says it, and still it gets taken for granted in Congress. The problem is that politicians (particularly on the right) like to pick on specific research projects as examples of “waste”. I always think of Sarah Palin’s comment about fruit fly research:

If you don’t know how ridiculous this particular comment is, please read the wikipedia page on fruit flies. I understand this political trick, because spending millions of dollars on research involving fruit flies can seem absurd to a lot of people. There are a lot of projects of this kind in science, and unfortunately, in the United States, just like in middle school and high school, the nerds are the easiest to pick on.

rotary-phoneResearch is much more complex than some process where you pay one guy for one thing that you need and you get that thing a year later. Research is the process of generating ideas, building on ideas, exchanging ideas, proving and disproving ideas, etc. For that you need A LOT of different talented and passionate minds working on a huge variety of projects. It’s a crazy mix of collaboration and competition. Out of this soup of ideas emerge technologies that immeasurably improve our lives from the iPhone to  to the treatment of heart disease. Guess what that soup needs… lots and lots and lots of  scientists with crazy ideas and the singular obsession to bring their ideas to life. Both the scientist and the ideas need financial support from companies, from government, from the people.

Take away fruit fly research, and we’ll all have to go back to using rotary phones. It’s all connected. You can’t cut little pieces of research here and there. Pay the nerds, and leave them alone. They will come back in a year with a time travel machine and a robot that can bring you a cold beer from the fridge whenever you like.

How Will History Remember the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

I am 29 now, and despite the probably objections of those older than me, I have enough years behind me to see in my own life that “history” remembers results. Details, such as injury or death of nameless people and the financial costs of decisions are often washed away in the haze of time. On the other hand, daily life is all about those pesky “details”. So we have to be careful not to lose them as the decades pass. But no matter how careful we are, eventually it’s likely to be forgotten.

I’m a great admirer of the intellect and writing ability of Christopher Hitchens. But I have always listened to his defense of the Iraq war with a polite disapproving silence.

saddam-hussein-statue-fallingHis argument is: Saddam was an evil dictator. U.S. got rid of him. The end.

To Hitchens that very important result overwhelms the details: the cost of the war, the deception around its origins, the history of the Iraq-US relationship, the precedent it set for future wars, the policies of torture, domestic spying, etc, and the fact that there are a lot of other oppressive governments throughout the world that we do nothing about.

Something Hitches said in a debate on this topic caught my attention, and it’s why I wrote this note. He said as a closing declaration that history will remember the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only for the fact that we removed Saddam Hussein from power.

And in my usual disapproving silence I contemplated that statement. Perhaps he is right. History remembers results. And one of the only clear results of these wars is that Saddam was removed from power. Everything else is complex and drenched in uncertainty. The deaths, the money, the misinformation might very well be forgotten.

I am troubled by that thought, but I’m only troubled by it as much as I am when I consider how big the universe is and how small we are in comparison. This is the way of time and civilization. Most of the things of concern to us today, yesterday, and in the last century, will be forgotten and perhaps sooner than we imagine.

Women Can Now Be Drafted in the Event of War

united-states-female-soldierThe Pentagon is lifting its ban on women in combat. This means that women will have to register for Selective Service (along with men) when they turn 18.

For peace activists, and rational hawks, this is a great thing, because doubling the pool of people to be drafted means that we will be much more deliberative in any decision to engage in military conflict.

On the one hand it’s obvious that women who want to serve their country should be allowed to do so. I have no doubt that there are women out there that are heroic soldiers, good officers, and would make brilliant generals. However, it’s also clear that our society still largely holds to the idea of “protect the women and children”. So the thought that a draft would force women into combat is disturbing to many.

This makes me happy, because it means we would only engage in an nation-wide military conflict if it was absolutely necessary as determined through undoubtedly heated discourse by the public. Any countervailing force that protects the masses from falling into the trap of nationalistic fervor is a force for long-term progress.



Polite Conversation in the Early Days of Nazi Germany

William-Dodd_178608kI’m reading In the Garden of Beasts which is the story of an American professor (not much different than me 30 years from now) serving as ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in 1933.

The story is terrifying because it describes a civil world on the verge of turning to destructive hatred and insanity, and shows how easy it is to ignore the signs of impending doom. The momentum of polite conversation at a respectable dinner party can drown out the strongest of our moral intuitions.

Again, the story is terrifying because I continue putting myself in the place of the main character, William E Dodd, and fail to ask the questions I wish I was fearless enough to ask. I am haunted by the thought that the people who were committing the worst atrocities in the 1940’s were not much different than the average American just a decade before.

I’d like to believe that the internet has changed the vulnerability of the masses to brain-washing. It has put massive stores of information at our fingertips. But perhaps, I’m being naive in that optimism and atrocities are always around the corner, just as long as we wait for the generation that remembers the previous one to die out.

I highly recommend the book because unlike other perspectives on the Third Reich, this one focuses exclusively on that most critical transition between something very similar to modern American society to the completely breakdown of thereof under Hitler.