Posts Tagged Connecticut

Canceling the snowpocalypse

Mailbox in Worcester, Massachusetts.What would Marshall Stacker Pentecost–Idris Elba’s oft-quoted character from Pacific Rim–say if he encountered not a giant monster from another dimension, but heavy snowfall?

New Englanders are supposed to dismiss each snowstorm as “just a dusting,” then go back to swigging Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and counting the minutes until opening day at Fenway.

That’s not the case though. With the snow piling on, many people are getting anxious, and the media would have you believe that the world is coming to an end. The Puritans wouldn’t be impressed.

Perhaps it has to do with the many ways we are now warned of impending precipitation.

Every time it snows, I get a weather alert on my phone, watch meteorologists discuss it with a perverse mix of dread and joy on television, and read about the aftermath in my local paper.

This might be a case of too much information. The constant bombardment of warnings may be making people more anxious than they were in the old days, when even school closings weren’t always properly broadcast.

Of course, one thing has changed in the intervening decades: the planet’s temperature.

Ask someone to trade in their car or washing machine for a more-efficient model, and all they’ll see is dollar signs. Ask them to look out their window in February, and all they’ll see is global warming.

This part of the country had a mild winter last year, which makes this one seem worse than it might actually be. Without crunching the numbers, I can say that past winters have left the landscape looking very much like it does now.

So while it’s good that people are starting to acknowledge global warming, it can also become another source of meteorological anxiety.

An easy remedy would be to just stop getting anxious about the weather. After all, things could be a lot worse. Remember the snowstorm that knocked out the region’s infrastructure in October 2011? Remember that there’s a place called Buffalo?

People may not be able to let go of it that easily, though. There may be a mass-execution of weathermen instead.

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Other People’s Cars: Zimmer Golden Spirit

Zimmer Golden SpiritHere’s a car that’s so tacky, it defies witty explanation.

The Zimmer Golden Spirit is the product of two of the most dangerous forces in the car industry: retro styling and startup companies.

The Zimmer is a “neo-classic;” a car sub genre popular in the 1970s and 1980s that married exaggerated vintage styling with modern components.

That’s why, even though this Golden Spirit looks like a cartoon version of a Duesenberg, it’s actually a Lincoln Town Car.

That blending of elements apparently appeals to some people, including the owner of this example, which I found sitting on the field of the New Fairfield (CT) Lions Car Show with other, more normal cars.

Normality isn’t a good things when it comes to cars, though; it’s already populated the world with enough Toyota Camrys. If nothing else, the Zimmer Golden Spirit shows that not every car has to make sense.

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Macchiato with a side of birdshot

I don’t have a problem with the Second Amendment, but I do have a problem with gun owners thinking that they are the center of the universe. After reading about the following episode in my local paper, I’m pretty sure that’s the issue.

Last Friday, the Starbucks on Church Hill Road in Newtown, Connecticut closed early after gun rights advocates swarmed it. They were participating in Starbucks Appreciation Day, a nationwide pro-gun event staged to thank the coffee chain for allowing customers to carry weapons into its stores.

That may sound fair enough, but this Starbucks is located 1.5 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Seeing an influx of gun advocates swarm into town less than a year after the tragic mass killing at the school, management decided to close early.

This was done “out of respect for Newtown and everything our community has been through,” a sign on the door said.

This isn’t about it being “too soon” for people to provide a counterpoint to Connecticut’s recently revamped gun laws. It’s about gun owners thinking that having a Constitutional right to own firearms means the rest of the world has to bend over backwards for them.

The Second Amendment guarantees that, “…the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Not infringing on people’s rights is very different from making their gun ownership more convenient.

Starbucks’ policy is a very nice thing for gun owners, but even if the chain didn’t allow guns in its stores, that would not be a violation of anyone’s rights. It would just be an inconvenience.

Whether your obsession is guns, or cars, or you just try to live your life as a mere human being without using one passion or hobby to define it, life is full of inconveniences. Their presence or absence has nothing to do with our greater existential struggles for liberty and dignity.

Another thing that shouldn’t be misconstrued with fundamental human rights is the importance of tact. Legally speaking, the gun advocates weren’t doing anything wrong when they rallied at the Newtown Starbucks, but perhaps they could have put things in perspective.

Allowing people to bring guns into coffee shops makes life a little more convenient, but it has no effect on the overall state of gun regulation, ostensibly the prime concern of pro-gun groups. There are also many other Starbucks stores in the area. Did they really have to go to the one within walking distance of Sandy Hook Elementary?

This is the kind of thing that cannot, and should not, be dealt with by legal action or counter-protesting, because the people who started it simply should have known better.

The gun debate would go a lot smoother, and might even be resolved, if people could just keep things in perspective. Turning Starbucks into a rallying point for a more expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment makes the gun lobby look petty. It makes it seem like gun owners only care about themselves, and not their fellow citizens. I sincerely hope that is not the case.

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Political campaigns: What is real and what is garbage

Salman Rushdie knows a lot about the power of ideas. His novel The Satanic Verses so enraged mullahcracy that he fatwa was issued against him. He spent the next several years of his life with a death warrant on his head. Interestingly though, Rushdie had an opportunity to silence the hatred, just a little bit, and he turned it down.

When a Pakistani film called International Guerillas came to the U.K., the British Board of Film Classification refused to let it be shown, and rightfully so. The film depicted Rushdie as a decadent hedonist and focused on the attempts of courageous defender of the faith to kill him (God ultimately finished him off).

Rushdie disagreed with the BBFC, though. He thought the film should be seen for the “distorted, incompetent piece of trash that it is.” In his memoir, Rushdie wrote that it was better to trust people to tell when something is bad, and deny it the “glamour of taboo.”

If only politics was simple enough for mere righteousness to prevail. Throughout this election, voters have been exposed to plenty of distorted, incompetent pieces of trash, but things are still pretty close.

I’ll use my home state of Connecticut as an example. The senate race between Democratic Congressman Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon has been deadlocked almost from the beginning, but I can’t figure out why.

The Nutmeg State definitely has its share of Republicans, but it has always been a solid blue state. It’s reasonable to expect McMahon to get some conservative supporters, but the state isn’t evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Instead, McMahon’s success seems to stem from her ability to run negative ads. Connecticut televisions are being bombarded by ads about Murphy’s poor attendance record in Congress and his personal financial troubles.

All of it is distorted or complete garbage, but the citizens of Connecticut are having trouble figuring that out. That’s because, while it’s easy to think n black and white when it comes to fiction, real life is a bit more complicated.

Murphy did not attend 80 percent of his committee hearings but he does have a 97 percent voting record, and it’s not like he’s lazy. He spends most of his time actually visiting the district he represents, something that gets glossed over when you try to reduce a man’s political career to a sound byte.

The same is true of Murphy’s personal life. McMahon asserts that Murphy is irresponsible because he was sued for missing mortgage payments, and that he negotiated a sweetheart deal with Webster Bank, trading federal bailout money for a good mortgage rate.

The fact is that Murphy paid back his creditors, and that no sweetheart deal ever occurred. Yet McMahon keeps running the ads. Webster asked her campaign to stop accusing the bank of corruption, but McMahon still brought up the phantom mortgage deal in a debate with Murphy.

This past week, Murphy finally pulled ahead in the polls with a six point lead. What took so long? It seems patently obvious that McMahon is attacking Murphy to distract Connecticut voters, or at least that she has spent the entire campaign on these attacks without discussing the issues. Yet it has been neck and neck until now.

Rushdie was willing to trust the British public with his reputation, to know that the people who were attacking him were wrong. That’s a standard that American voters would do well to emulate.

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Revenge of the Air Line

Amtrak Acela 2009

An Amtrak Acela cruises through Old Syabrook, Ct. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This isn’t a story about boarding passes and mediocre food. It’s about connecting two of America’s busiest cities with a ribbon of steel, and how there is nothing new under the Sun.

Federal officials have a new proposal for a high-speed rail line across Connecticut connecting New York and Boston. Amtrak’s intercity Acela trains currently use the former New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad “Shore Line,” (a.k.a. Metro North New Haven Line) which shadows Long Island Sound.

However, that is not the fastest way from one end of Connecticut to the other.

Most people who need to get from New York to Boston via car take Interstate 84, which cuts diagonally across the Nutmeg State like a hypotenuse. That is what federal officials are proposing: a new line that eschews the Shore Line for a route through the state capital, Hartford.

What Amtrak may not realize is that this idea has been tried before. In 1868, construction began on a railroad that would connect Boston and New York. The line would diverge from the modern day Shore Line at New Haven, then head northeast via Middletown and Willimantic. It became known as the Boston-New York Air Line Railroad.

In an era that predated human powered flight by about 30 years, “Air Line” referred to any railroad that chose a shorter route over an easier one.

The builders of the Air Line had the right idea, they justdidn’t take it far enough. High-speed trains in Europe and Asia run on dedicated, arrow-straight rights of way, but engineers also made sure those lines lacked significant grades. That’s why trains like the TGV and Eurostar spend most of their time in trenches (“cuts” in railroad speak) or tunnels.

Amtrak’s Acela is a very fast train, but it’s speed is limited by the fact that it runs on a route designed for much slower trains. Consequently, the Acela can only reach its top speed of 150 mph briefly.

So a high-speed rail line needs to be relatively curve free, like the Air Line, but also free of other obstructions, including slower trains. To run wide open, modern trains will need a route that traces the Air Line.

The only problem is that the Air Line was a commercial failure. Connecticut has many rivers that run north-south, which means it has many steep hills and valleys to impede a railroad running east-west. Consequently, the Air Line was very expensive to build, and its owners never had the cash to take it all the way to Boston.

That’s why, today, the Air Line is almost completely gone. A section between Middletown and Portland is still operated by the Providence & Worcester Railroad, the rest is abandoned or part of the Air Line State Park trails.

In fact, the Shore Line is the only successful railroad ever built across Connecticut, due to its flat, southerly route. Amtrak wants to take its high-speed line through Danbury, which would parallel the route of the Air Line’s successor, the New York and New England. The New Haven Railroad bought that company began abandoning the tracks in 1937; by 1948 all of the trackage west of Waterbury was gone.

Other casualties included the Central New England, which ran from Hartford to Poughkeepsie, New York and the Meriden, Waterbury & Connecticut River, which connected Waterbury with Cromwell.Connecticut high-speed rail map

Any new high-speed line will face the same problem as its forebears: a difficult route and competition for a limited amount of traffic with another line.

However, we have a few advantages in the 21st century that didn’t exist in the 19th. Amtrak is a government operation, so if the political will to build this line exists, a steady flow of cash will see it through to its completion.

Modern railroaders also have the technology to take full advantage of a direct route. Trains like the Acela are faster and can sustain those high speeds much longer than any 1800s steam engine. Advances in signal and communications technology also mean that more trains can run on a given route.

Maybe the Air Line’s time has finally come.

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