Two Notes on Infrastructure and Going to Hell

By James Fallows

In response to this item, two comments arriving within 30 seconds of each other. To be honest, this sort of thing is the main payoff of having a web site.

From a reader in China:

I live in Zhengzhou, Henan Province and when I travel around the city I have the privilege of using the buses.  Today, in the rain, through the steamy window of my jam-packed bus, I saw a women just sit down in the middle of the road and take her shoes off.  My God, do I know how she felt! In true Chinese fashion, the other drivers just drove around her through all the potholes.

From a reader on a visit to the US:

Like yourself, this week I am being subjected to  experiencing the "pleasure" of riding Acela from Washington, DC to New York and back.  However, unlike you, I am having a hard time finding anything to be even remotely optimistic about. 

Let's start with their much touted, free Wifi.  I was in the business section on my journey up to New York and found the Wifi so painfully slow,  I was pining for the days of dial-up.  Trying to load the Atlantic's web page? I gave up after it took nearly 5 minutes for the just the Atlantic masthead to appear on the page (luckily, I had a hard copy with me .  Google news managed to load after about two minutes, but when I clicked on a story from PC World, I was redirected to another page which informed me the site was being blocked because it may contain content deemed offensive to other passengers.  My two theories:  
A) The Chinese have managed to find a new customer for Green Dam [censoring program]
B) Steve Jobs is upset that Apple's newest business model, patent troll, is generating criticism and he's leveraging Apple's popularity to crush dissent (the offending article was highly critical of Apple's suits against HTC).

This brings me to my second major complaint about Amtrak and US infrastructure as a whole: I am writing this while sitting on the floor of the business car (but sending later from home) on Amtrak 55 from New York to Washington, DC.  The 6:20pm Acela was canceled due to mechanical difficulties and they packed us all on the 7:05pm regional train.  I'm one of the lucky ones too; at least I found a place to sit.  There are at least another 20 people forced to stand for the entire trip.  To add to the frustration; there is a completely unoccupied business car at the front of the train, but they won't let us use it and will not explain why.  Oh yeah, our train was also delayed by 30 minutes in Philadelphia so they could bring a maintenance crew on board to inspect another one of the cars. 

I tried calling my wife to tell her I would be late, but it appears the state of Delaware is one giant dead spot for T-Mobile. [My experience exactly. Delaware's two distinguishing traits: shamelessly milking I-95 traffic with highway-robbery toll booths, and cell-phone black hole, at least near Amtrak routes. Maybe they're mad about the lost tolls. On the other hand, the "Small Wonder" state gives us Dogfish Head ales.]

I currently live in [Europe]... and like you; I am struck by the truly awful state of our infrastructure.  Our roads and highways more closely resemble the ground in an artillery range than a transport network and our telecommunications network is so pathetic, I think I can get more reliable service using two tin cans and a really, really long piece of string. 

The state of our infrastructure is so scandalous and I'll now I'm right when I turn on Fox News and hear chest-thumping proclamations about how America has the "best infrastructure in the world" and that any government sponsored attempt to improve it means that the American version of Great Leap Forward is only weeks away.  After all, we all know the only thing preventing this country from magically sprouting a network of maglev trains is the estate tax. 

Here's the great irony; I am back in the States to finalize a new job with an organization dedicated to promotion and development of intelligent transport systems (ITS) throughout our nation's infrastructure.  I'm starting to think this is a bad career move...

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/03/two-notes-on-infrastructure-and-going-to-hell/37080/