National Train Day: Saturday, May 9!

That's right, May 9 is National Train Day in America. Amtrak gets high marks for the marketing campaign on this one.

I really like the idea of getting people excited about train travel and several angles are being played in this one campaign. There is an appeal to "Trainiacs" but also to families and executive travelers.

If only more people would get behind the idea that investing in trains is an investment in the future. Think of all the jet fuel emissions we could save with high speed inter-city links. Not to mention the productivity gains--it is so much easier to work on a train than a plane. (Assuming Amtrak or whomever installs broadband--it is not hard to do guys--if they can do it on buses between Philly and Manhattan you can do it on trains.)

Anyway, check the site and you will find links ot all sorts of train-related events around the country this weekend.

Stunning Tesla Model S Sedan: When a silent test drive can speak volumes

Thanks to good friend and fellow green car enthusiast, David Brussin, CEO of inherently green Monetate, I attended a great party last night, superbly hosted by New York mega-agency IAC, where the guest of honor was a stunning new emissions-free car, the all-electric Tesla Model S Sedan.

While David chatted with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, I had a chance to discuss the Tesla S design challenges with Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausenon. He said that in many ways the challenge was to avoid being too audacious, given the freedom afforded by an electric power train (like the absence of a large engine up front and a large fuel tank in the rear). The role of this sedan is to get mainstream consumers excited about an all-electric vehicle without coming across as far out.

In my opinion von Holzhausenon has succeeded on all fronts with this design. It would be a head-turner if it was a regular petroleum-powered car. As an electric it will turn even more heads, even though people won't hear it coming, or going.

Later in the evening we hooked up with Green Car Reports Editor-in-Chief John Voelcker and went for a test drive in the sedan. A very short test drive, but enough to leave a lasting impression, of amazing acceleration--accomplished in almost complete silence--and of terrific cabin space design. John has a more detailed write-up here.

BTW, during my chat with von Holzhausenon I was gratified to hear him acknowledge Coventry's continuing role as a source of automotive design and engineering talent. An excellent evening all round.

The Rural Broadband Challenge: Use It!

"Teleco and cable company lobbyists conspicuously have overlooked a decade of grassroots innovations generated by community technology centers and community networking. (For just a sample of the community work being done see Community Technology Review; Community Technology Centers Network; Association for Community Networking; and Community Networking Clearinghouse.) These community groups have been active in providing local Internet service, broadband, and the teaching resources to make the most of it."

The Rural Broadband Challenge: Use It | Daily Yonder | Keep It Rural

Move Over Mini? Fiat 500 could be the next big little thing

There is at least one bright spot in all the gloom surrounding the US auto industry today: Fiat might soon own a big slice of Chrysler Jeep Dodge. Why is this good news? Fiat makes some cool stuff, not the "least" of which is the ultra-cool Fiat 500. And the deal with Chrysler may bring this affordable high mileage mini-car to America.

Italian automakers have always had the ability to sell their vehicular technology on the basis of lifestyle and aesthetics (c.f. Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lambretti, Ducati). The new Fiat 500 is no exception, except it is undoubtedly more reliable than the old Fiats most Americans have known (a.k.a. Fix It Again Tomorrow). This remake of the original mini-car from the 1950s and 60s is really exciting stuff. Even Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson was impressed. And check out Motor Trend raving about the fiesty 500 Abarth pictured here.

Also check out design of the Fiat 500 web site. Also cool. And there's talk of a diesel version and an electric version (of the car, not the web site). What's not to love? As to reliability. I've rented Fiats on several trips to the UK in recent years and had no problems. In fact, I even owned a Fiat Strada in the U.S. in the 1980s, probably the last time Fiat had dealership arrangements this side of the Atlantic. I put a lot of highway miles on that little hatchback across many Western states and I don't ever recall it failing to start (I even cut a hole in the roof and fitted a sunroof--but that's another story.

The Italian connection continues in our diesel Jeep Liberty, the engine of which is sourced from Italy. We've put 38,000 miles on it since late 2005, through all kinds of weather including deep winter. It's towed big trailers for days with no complaint. I like it. I also like the idea of Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealers carrying small Fiats. If they do it right, I'm thinking they could sell like hotcakes.

Could 1491 Solve the Swine Flu Mystery?

I recently wrote a review of a great book that I am re-reading these days: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. And today I realized that it might contain an explanation for something that has recently rocketed to the top of the news: swine flu in Mexico.

Right now there is open speculation as to why some people are getting infected and others are not, why some people are getting very sick and others not. Some reports suggest more people in Mexico are getting more seriously infected than eslewhere. And here's where 1491 comes in.

Author Charles Mann reviews all manner of resarch as to why some diseases had such a devastating effect on Indian populations. One factor was  human leukocyte antigens or HLAs, an important part of the body's disease fighting systems. Humans fight disease better when they have a diversity of HLAs.

Most human groups have a "scatterbox mix" of HLAs but South American Indians have fewer HLA types than populations in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In South America, according to one estimation, the minimum probability that a pathogen in one host will next encounter a host with a similar immune spectrum is about 28 percent. By comparison, in Europe the chance is less than 2 percent.

Now I'm sure that I'm over-simplifying here, but it would seem that there's an infection differential of 14X in there somewhere. While the population of Mexico is, in broad terms a mix of Europeans and Indians, it may well have less HLA diversity than the population of a melting pot like the United States. Which bodes well for the States, not so well for Mexico. I hope the World Health Organization is checking this out.

We Need Broadband! Worth Saying Yes

This survey/petition is not the only "we want rural broadband" effort out there, but one worth spreading. The more people who submit the better:

We Need Broadband Inquiry Form

Brits Go For Steam Car Record!

Given the connection to John Cobb, the first person to exceed 400mph in a wheel driven car, and to Coventry, home of the fastest car in the world today, I thought this video news story was great, headlined "A British team is looking to beat the speed record for a steam-powered car.

Steam car races toward record: Video story

The current record has stood for 103 years, having been established at just over 127 miles per hour in 1906. At that time, that speed, achieved by a steam powered car, was THE world land speed record (LSR). That record stood as the LSR until 1910 when it was narrowly eclipsed by a combustion-engined vehicle. For the whole story, check the official site.

Two Good Books and a Movie: Avoid if you're feeling blue

The common element in stuff I've been reading and watching lately is this: It could really bring you down. We're talking about the suffering and death of millions of people here. So you've been warned. On the other hand, these are stimulating works, they might make you think a lot, and then you might have some new thoughts about how things could be made better. Then you could act on those thoughts and the world would become a better place. I guess we'll see.

First up is the movie Body of Lies. Great photography and editing. Great casting and acting. And a gripping story without a cheesy ending. To me this film was drenched in authenticity. AFAIK, what you see in this film is very close to how things really are in the field of espionage, as in "espionage in the field" and the people who run it, both locally and remotely.

As Far As I Know, there is this huge gap between remote agent and central office--the controller cheering his kid's suburban soccer game or taking his son to the bathroom, while calling in the kill--which suddenly collapses with a plane flight into the field. Then it zooms back into the clinical and chilling detachment of eye-in-the-sky operational monitoring and direction (with echoes of Patriot Games and The Bourne Supremacy but with great real world moral ambivalence). We are left in no doubt that local assets, people we turn when we pursue humint, are considered expendable, and there's a school of thought that says this is the way it must be. You rarely see that portrayed as bluntly as it is in Body of Lies.

Second up is the novel, Timebomb, which echoes that same theme of the expendable asset, with deeper historical context as to how it arose. The action here is in Europe, from the UK to the eastern Soviet bloc, but present day, so we have disaffected Russians, Jewish mobsters, and Middle Eastern terrorists. Again the operational authenticity is there, but layered into the basic spy v. terrorist story you find the horrific story of a Polish death camp. And this "second" story is not pasted on, it is integral to the picture that Seymour paints of hate and fear breeding more of the same.

The author of this thick but very readable thriller is Gerald Seymour, a former ITN television news reporter, back when that title meant you got a lot of experience reporting in the field (he covered the Munich Olympics massacre and the Great Train Robbery, and spent time reporting from Vietnam and Northern Ireland). Relatively unknown in the States, judged by a dearth of Seymour titles on the shelves of two different Barnes & Nobles I have visited in the last three months, Seymour is a consistent best-seller in the UK and has penned a string of excellent novels.

For me, his The Walking Dead A Thriller is the definitive novel about suicide bombing. One of my guilty pleasures on a trip to the UK is stocking up Gerald Seymour novels (not sure why I said "guilty" because "stupid" is more apt--I have to drag the things home on the plane and you can actually order online in the U.S.).

On a literary note, these books rise above the "thriller" tag for me, much like LeCarré's work. Seymour's style is faster-paced but the depth is there. His trademark technique is weaving multiple points-of-view. There are no "main" characters but rather a half dozen or more people that we follow throughout the book. The fun part is deciding who's POV you're getting at the start of a new section. A rare case of entertainment tastefully blended with substance.
The last review is 1491 and there's an inverse relationship between the amount of truly fascinating content in this book and the brevity of its title. (Okay, so the full title is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus but what I'm saying is, this book is stuffed with good stuff.)

This such a good book I am now reading it for the second time. I don't read many books twice, so this is quite the accolade (others so honored in my post-college life include Gibson's Neuromancer and Count Zero, and Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, the latter having more than enough ironic content to warrant the long title).

What I'm doing with 1491 right now is dipping into several different sections at once. It is a testament to author Charles C. Mann's superb writing that one can do this. I can flip from the amazing city of Cahokia on the Mississippi to the dozens of feuding Mayan city states. I can read about the vast earthworks of the Beni and the sophisticated aquaculture of the Amazon, then travel via Norte Chico, a Peruvian civilization older than Egypt, to the indigenous forest-scaping of the North Eastern U.S. And all the while I can follow the plot, which is basically this: America was a heavily populated and highly civilized land before contact with the Europeans.

That many millions of people died as a result of European arrival in the Americas, either killed in conflict or killed as a consequence of contact, is now clear. This truth had been slowly emerging in scientific papers and publications for decades, but Mann has pulled all of the data together and the effect is almost overwhelming. I had long suspected that the sophistication and scale of indigenous culture and civilization was being ignored or suppressed.

With a minimum of moralizing and finger-pointing Mann documents the whole sorry story. He leaves others to state the obvious conclusion: Americans of European origin stole this land and we did our best to destroy the civilizations that once thrived here. It took less than 500 years to erase tens of thousands of years of human history, hundreds of languages, scores of magnificent cities, dozens of libraries, and millions of people.

I believe that many of the consequences of this history have yet to be played out. After all, the consequences of ancient conquest in the Middle East are still shaping events today, and our post-imperial ahistorical ineptness in dealing with them is still causing problems, some of which can be seen in a film like Body of Lies or a book like Timebomb. Watch and read, just try not to get too depressed about it.

(Note: In the interests of full disclosure, all the above links are to Amazon through my Associates account. That doesn't add anything to the price but it means that this blog gets a small kickback from Amazon when you buy from these links.)

Google Street View Privacy Survey: Win an Earth Day Prize!

I recently wrote about privacy attitudes to Google Street View and I thought it would be interesting to carry out a quick survey. Since viewing places on Google Street View is arguably more earth-friendly than going to see them in person, I decided to offers some cool Earth Day prizes!

Five people who complete the survey, between now and April 25, will be randomly selected to receive cool re-usable shopping bags, the kind that save using paper and plastic. These bags are burnt orange in color but very green. And the really cool thing is they fit in your pocket, no kidding! So please take a moment to fill out the form and include your email address if you want to be in the prize drawing. Good luck!

Earth Day Prizes? Check out my survey and win

Sounds cheesy but it's true. You could win an earth-friendly prize for taking a very short survey that I created on my technology blog here. The link is which gives you a clue as to the prizes, and an easy way to share it.

Good luck!