30.4.08

THANK YOU FOR LOOKING IN. Here is the April to April traffic report. That spike in February represents the traffic from one bad week. My objective last spring was to obtain another year-on-year increase in traffic, if perhaps not as dramatic as the one that began once Google Images started sending people this way for the pictures. That increase appears not to have happened, but I have a decent base from which to build additional traffic once the new school year starts.


Posting will be somewhat lighter during the summer months, for reasons that I suspect parallel the reasons some of my readers have for making fewer visits.

One question for readers: how many prefer the new Site Meter bar chart with the older line chart?
STRATEGIC PLANNING FOLLIES. The Toledo Institute of Technology, formerly known as the University of Toledo, intends a re-engineering (run for the exits) of its curriculum and focus, in which the corrective to access-assessment-remediation-retention is mass-customized (the oxymoron meter is in the 30 minute overload range) access-assessment-remediation-retention, but with more computers, larger classes in a gym re-styled as the educational incubator, (approaching the 15 minute overload range) and more deaducationists reporting directly to a deputy provost of teaching and learning.

I regret to inform you that this is not a misplaced April Fool post. University Diaries offers editorial comment, and the bull session identifies a faculty forum at TIT, er, UofT that includes links to other comments on TIT's brain-cramp, er, new paradigm (THE NEEDLE IS IN THE FIVE MINUTE OVERLOAD RANGE) that are able to give it more attention than I have the energy to at the moment.
THEY'LL NEVER LACK FOR MATERIAL. Rate Your Students, that is.
IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO BEER. To build social capital, we drink it here.
TRAINBLOGGING. Here?

29.4.08

EARLIER POSTS THAN USUAL TODAY? Yup, I'm warming up for a bout of grading.
KEEPING THE POOR POOR. Over the weekend, Senator Obama's minister gave some speeches, including a Detroit keynote address, that have drawn angry responses from commentators left and right.

Here's a Jonah Goldberg summary.

On Sunday in Detroit, he explained to 10,000 people at the Fight for Freedom Fund dinner of the NAACP -- an organization adept at taking offense at far less racist comments from nonblacks -- that whites have an inherent "left-brain cognitive, object-oriented learning style. Logical and analytical," while blacks "learn not from an object but from a subject. They are right-brain, subject-oriented in their learning style. That means creative and intuitive. The two worlds have different ways of learning."

Blacks even have better rhythm, Wright explained.

I watched some of the speech, and that's not exactly what the preacher said. (He did cross the line attempting to bundle scales and rhythms with ethnicities. I learned at a young age that it was bad music theory to equate "black keys" with "Chinese" music, yet another source of pentatonic scales, and while it is true that Prussian common time is LINKS zwei DREI vier, there are pieces in common time with emphasis on the second and fourth beat. Would the reverend accept ONE two three four as Native American common time? And as long as I'm griping, Lyndon Johnson's speech patterns were an object of mockery, although probably not in the preacher's social circle.)

What he did say was pernicious, but only for its effect on the future miseducation of children. The less incendiary bits of the speech, which the commentariat have let pass, made reference to the suspect research on differences in learning, including but not limited to learning styles or identity-politics corollaries to "womens' ways of knowing." By endorsing that research, the reverend pushes back the day when parents whose children are most mis-served by deaducationist fads will say Enough.
END THE CORPORATE WELFARE. Our tax dollars go to provide inefficiently many rights-of-way for trucking companies that do not bear the costs of using them. Thus motorists have to bear the costs inflicted on them by excess-weight vehicles more productive of potholes than of ton-miles. Pedestrians and corner lot owners are at risk because city governments refuse (or are prohibited by state and national governments) to ban articulated vehicles from city streets. And I haven't even begun to fulminate about the effects of one of those slow-accelerating ton-mile-nonproducers on traffic flows when it has to deal with the mistimed traffic lights on the arterial streets.

But I have more serious things to fulminate about. On Friday, I had business in Chicago, and as I was making my way through the Loop, the loudspeakers at the L stations were advising riders of a closure on the North-South from Grand to 35th. A runaway truck left two people dead on an escalator at the Cermak-Chinatown station. The mechanical condition of the truck and the aspects on the traffic lights are not yet public knowledge. But who among us has not seen a semi on an arterial street, that upon receiving a yellow light with a block or two of stopping distance, hasn't accelerated (that is, if such things can be said to accelerate) and laid on the horn. This behavior is apparently encouraged by the industry, and far too frequently winked at by law enforcement. So we have the stories of two lives cut short, whether by inattention or mechanical failure or by business as usual. The driver is a real piece of work.

Initial toxicology tests showed no signs of illegal drugs in the system of the driver, Don Wells, but officials are awaiting expanded results for additional substances.

"We are investigating everything," said Chicago Police Sgt. Maurice McCaster of the major accidents unit.

After police took his clothes as evidence, Wells declined the paper garments he was offered and stayed in the police lockup naked, McCaster said.

Wells, 64, was in custody for two days. During that time, he urinated on the floor of his cell instead of using the urinal, sources said.

Wells' behavior is one of many mysteries surrounding the Friday rush-hour crash, which killed Eloisa Guerrero, 47, and Delisia Brown, 18. Wells, of Metamora, Mich., was ticketed for negligent driving and released from police custody Sunday night.

The truck left no skid marks, sources said. That fact has led investigators to wonder if the brakes malfunctioned -- or if Wells simply did not apply them. Investigators are examining the truck for mechanical problems.

The corporate welfare recipient trucking company epitomizes precision transportation, if precision is in counting the misrepresentations.

According to U.S. Department of Transportation records, over the past 30 months Whiteline had 41 accidents with 15 injuries and one fatality before Friday.

Whiteline's safety officer said she had found 923 falsified drivers' logs from 2004 to 2006, according to lawsuit records reported by WMAQ-Ch. 5. Some 691 driver logs were missing, the officer said.

Why are we buying rights of way for corner-cutting enterprises such as these?

Closer to home, a different trucker failed to yield with the predictable result.

The driver of the semi in an accident that killed NIU glassblower Daniel Edwards was cited for failing to yield while turning left.

At 7:42 a.m. Wednesday, Edwards, 60, of Rochelle was traveling eastbound on Highway 38 near the interchange with I-39 when a westbound semi-trailer turned in front of his motorcycle, causing a collided.

Edwards was taken to Rochelle Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Daniel’s wife, Diane Edwards, 58, of Rochelle, was a passenger on the motorcycle and was also taken to Rochelle Community Hospital and then transferred by helicopter to Rockford Memorial Hospital.

The driver of the semi, Gerald Hemker, 51, of Germantown, was not injured in the crash.

Hemker was issued a citation for failing to yield while turning left, according to a Rochelle Police Department press release.

Edwards was best known at NIU for hosting a glassblowing demonstration each fall. He planned on retiring at the end of the semester. Edwards was the 1999 recipient of the Helmut E. Drechsel Achievement Award, given out by the American Glassblowers Society.

“We are very saddened and shocked by the news of Dan’s death this morning,” said Shannon Gates, coordinator for recruitment and public relations of the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, on Wednesday. “He was a great asset to our department, as a talented glassblower and good friend.”

One man dead, one couple's retirement ruined, one more episode of sadness on campus, because law enforcement winks at disregard of traffic signals by truckers, and because road commissioners refuse to separate freight from passenger traffic.
TWO SYSTEMS OF BELIEF. A recent Inside Higher Ed commentary (unwittingly) notes the fundamental dynamic of higher education.

On one hand, there is a cherished and sentimental view of universities as academic places where caring teachers mold young minds through unhurried and probing conversations about poems and politics, the human condition and the forces of nature. In this utopia, a university’s classes are small, tutored by sage and patient scholars; juvenile errors and excesses are gently but firmly corrected; and, of course, football games are always won. And in this romanticized view, lush and leafy campuses are sanctuaries for eccentric intellectuals to think deep thoughts, develop whimsical theories, and indulge in the time-consuming trials and errors of research.

On the other hand, when talk turns to matters of state funding or, even worse, tuition, sweet sentimentalities are replaced by a fulminating call for universities to become ruthlessly efficient – no time or treasure squandered on small classes or idle contemplation or tending to pretty flowers on campus. Things must be run as “lean” as business would have us believe it has become. Fat must be excised, indolence must be punished mercilessly, unnecessary processes must be re-engineered and unnecessary people banished. Over-extended and under-funded state budgets have only served to increase the clamor for universities to become more frugal than friendly. And tax-phobic critics of state government spending, in particular, have elevated the no holds barred efficiency-as-a-mandate rhetoric.

The authors get to the heart of the matter several meandering paragraphs later. (Nothing quite focuses the mind like "If you send us a shorter manuscript that also addresses these comments.")
The evidence is not at all clear that “efficiency,” as commonly understood in business jargon, is in any way rewarded by the higher education “marketplace.” Imagine, for example, the least efficient institution of higher education in your state. Chances are that the teaching loads of its high-paid faculty are largely discretionary and barely measurable, with faculty efforts focused instead on the publication of esoteric thoughts in widely-unread journals; its library contains hundreds of thousands of volumes that haven’t been opened in decades; it has well manicured lawns and, probably, a facility that seats tens of thousands of people but is only used five or six Saturdays each year (hint–think football stadium).
One wishes that some of these business wannabees and their unthinking accomplices in the legislature would develop a better understanding of efficiency. Efficiency refers to the identification and fulfillment of all feasible gains from trade. That "least efficient" institution quite likely is catering to the excess demand for perceived quality, an excess demand augmented by the toxic blend of "customer satisfaction" with "access for all" that the authors would have readers believe is efficient.
Imagine then, the most “efficient” higher education institution in your state. It likely has under-paid faculty with teaching loads that approach sweat-shop labor conditions; it may well be housed in a store-front; its library might be little more than a set of encyclopedias; and it is marketing hard for a student body that will keep it marginally solvent.
The late Fred F. Loock would wisecrack that the businessman who sold his product for a lower price knew what it was worth. That's not the way to endow museums and libraries.

The real test of efficiency, though, requires demand as well as supply.
Now ... which one has accomplished students waiting with baited breath for word of a favorable admissions decision? Which one receives tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in largesse from loyal alumni or proud donors each year? Which one commands the almost slavish allegiance of those very state legislators who cheer loudly from prime seats at athletic pageants but publicly threaten to discipline their spendthrift habits? Is “efficiency” — in a business definition — really recognized or rewarded in the higher education marketplace?
The "efficiency" of cheaper for its own sake ought not to be. The efficiency of recognizing and realizing gains from trade ought to be.

A commenter to the column asks readers not to generalize.
The author’s example of the least and most efficient institutions misses the point of the need for controlled spending. The purportedly “inefficient” institution that has all the frills can probably afford them. Otherwise it would be in a position where it had to control costs (like the purportedly “efficient” institution). Any college can go into massive debt to provide amenities, but they do so at the risk of going out of business if the gambit doesn’t pay off in increased revenue. Frankly, mediocre schools with mediocre revenue streams have to live within their means. The American public needs to do the same.
The column does argue from the extremes, and in its willingness to take a dig at the state flagship institutions, misses the main point. Where the efficiency is one of offering the sentimentalized college experience, for which there appears to be excess demand, rather than making universal college inexpensive, for which the unproductive output is in excess supply, a strategy of drawing invidious comparisons with the private colleges and the state flagships, rather than ending access-assessment-remediation-retention strikes me as less productive.
CONSENSUS MAY BE EASIER TO REACH. In a letter circulated to students, staff, and faculty, Northern Illinois president John Peters summarizes points of agreement about the future of Cole Hall.

First, I want to report that majority opinion on key issues differed very little from group to group. In ratios ranging from 3-to-1 to 4-to-1, our campus community asked that Cole Hall remain standing, but that it not be used for instructional purposes in its current configuration. Many of you invoked the memories of those whom we lost, and expressed a desire to honor them by giving new life to the building where they died.

Second, while some favored demolition and others urged us to keep the building, the majority of those espousing either position said they would not be comfortable taking or teaching classes in Cole Hall in its current incarnation. The strength of that feeling did not seem to diminish over the course of our six-week survey process.

Three proposals are on offer.
The first option suggests renovating both Cole Hall auditoriums, continued use as a lecture hall, but with significant changes and functionality.

The second option involves renovating Auditorium A (Room 100) as a lecture hall, while remodeling Auditorium B (101) to support no classroom activities.

The third option is to renovate both auditoriums to support no classroom activities.

Options two and three require the development of a large lecture hall somewhere else on campus. All options focus on use of the first floor with little to no change to the basement area.

The "Auditorium A" reference is to Jameson Auditorium, where a computer science class had finished early. "Auditorium B" refers to Collins Auditorium, all references to which appear to have been expunged from the university archives.

The basement area at one time held materials from the anthropology museum's collection as well as the anime association's screening room.
HENDRIK HOUTHAKKER. Via Greg Mankiw, the Washington Post obituary, noting Professor Houthakker's service to Official Washington.
BEST WISHES. King Banaian of SCSU Scholars is in hospital, recovering from not-so-routine surgery.

27.4.08

A BLUSTERY DAY FOR SPRING PRACTICE. Note the terrace seating on the balcony of the new locker room. I wonder if those are the only extra-fare end-zone seats in the Mid-American.


There was an open practice on Saturday, marking the end of spring football practice. I don't observe the event frequently enough to judge whether the pre-scrimmage tailgating drew more people than usual or if there were more visitors from the other Great Lakes states than in previous years. Judicious use of the telephoto lens and the crop feature makes the impression of a full stadium. I was able to secure a seat at the 50 yard line just as the practice began. There were a lot of little kids in the stands, which is a good sign. The mid-majors offer a comfortable game environment for parents, and our winter troubles haven't scared them off.
NOW YOU ARE CATCHING ON. A letter to the editor gripes about DeKalb traffic. Although the letter-writer focuses on the congestion that ensues when Union Pathetic Pacific use the tracks west of town for Unlimited Parking, the comments include several suggestions that the city traffic engineers improve the sequencing of the traffic lights. I fully agree. Those sensors that will throw a yellow in the face of a car maintaining a safe following distance behind the car in front of it have to go as well.
IT MUST BE TERM PAPER SEASON. I wonder if somebody got gigged.

26.4.08

WHAT IS UNSEEN. The University of Chicago's Allen Sanderson reminds readers that prestige has opportunity costs.

As reported in the press and media events, an overwhelming majority of Chicagoans—84 percent—was supportive of the city's bid to host the 2016 Olympic events. (Given the political season and climate, another way to "spin" the numbers for those opposed is that only 54 percent were strongly supportive; 30 percent were simply "somewhat supportive.")

I suspect that at least 84 percent of those polled were also in favor of world peace, fewer potholes, and the Cubs winning the 2008 World Series. But a more relevant way to elicit information is to face respondents with some prices or notion of the sacrifice required to achieve a stated objective.

For example, what if the pollsters had asked: "How much would you be willing to pay annually in the form of taxes on what you own, earn or spend to bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago?" The survey could have given some prices to choose from: $0; $50; $100, $500 or $1,000. Or, alternatively, the pollsters could have asked: "If it costs the city $1 million to have the 2016 Olympic Games here, are you strongly in favor, somewhat in favor, somewhat opposed, or strongly opposed?" Then we could, either sequentially or by segmenting respondents, up the ante: "What if it costs the city $100 million? $1 billion?"

The boosters will tell you such talk takes away the fun, but there is always fun in spending other peoples' money.

Time and time again, commissioned polls or impact studies purport to show one thing when reality is quite another. I have yet to see an economic impact study for building a sports facility or convention center, or hosting a major sporting event, that did not promise cornucopias of cash to the city bold enough to "invest" in the scheme. And yet, virtually all convention centers in this country lose money, and revenues spent inside new sports palaces enrich only the owners and leagues.

If the pattern holds, and it likely will, cities that host Olympic events tend to lose money. These short-term, overly hyped events, as opposed to longer term, well-thought-out urban investments, have low or negative rates of return.

That may be fine if our eyes as well as our wallets are wide open, knowing full well that this will cost us monetarily but that we still want to do it.

After all, we spend money on dogs and boats with no expectation that they will pay for themselves financially. But, then, let's at least be upfront and honest about it: "Yeah, it's going to cost us—and you, the taxpayer—an unknown ton of money and some serious inconveniences, but we think it's worth it and here's why."

He also notes the conjuring trick in advising taxpayers that it's private money at risk.

Whether to support the Games themselves or merely the city's official bid, the latter carrying a price tag of $50 million to $100 million, one hears that "only private money" is underwriting those activities; no tax dollars will be spent. "Private" implicitly refers to donations from corporations and wealthy citizens. However, in jargon that students learn on the first day of Economics 101, virtually all expenditures or allocations have an opportunity cost, whether it be for a firm or family.

If Boeing, Sears, Motorola or McDonald's gives $1 million to help finance our Olympic bid, that is $1 million that does not get returned to stockholders as dividends or plowed back into the company for new projects and production. In addition, that is $1 million that does not, then, support an exhibition at the Field Museum, a new gallery at the Art Institute, or an after-school youth program.

When I sit down each December to write out checks to local, national and international charities and other non-profit organizations, I am implicitly choosing how to allocate, say, $2,000 among various groups and activities. The slice that goes to WTTW Ch. 11 doesn't go to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless or the American Cancer Society—or to the University of Chicago. It's still just $1 million or $2,000 no matter how a corporation, a wealthy benefactor or I cut it.

There is no free lunch in this world and no free Olympic Games either.

Mr Sanderson correctly notes the introductory economics jargon. It's an idea that requires a modicum of repetition, in part because economics is not required of all collegians and in part because in all too many classes, "opportunity cost" gets lost in a thicket of formulas and graphs that can throw even the more dedicated student off the trail.
WE ENCOURAGE CREATIVITY. Here's a look at what's on Kerry's workbench. More precisely, it was her workbench.

22.4.08

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Threat prompts NIU to tighten security.

Northern Illinois University is boosting security this week after threatening graffiti was found.

School officials said the graffiti was found Monday, but university police concluded the threats don't warrant suspending classes. In an e-mail to students, the school urged students and faculty to "remain calm but vigilant and to report any information they might have about this threat to the campus police."

In a statement, the school said it would not release details because "excessive media coverage of campus threats clearly contributes to their proliferation."

Just as we're getting our composure back, and the weather is getting better.
THE ROAD FOREMAN OF ENGINES SAYS EARTH DAY IS EVERY DAY.


Pigouvian taxes or not, smoke inspectors on the Prison Point bridge or not, a clean-burning locomotive is a boon to the bottom line.

Some time ago, I came across some snarking at a General Motors executive who was touting a hybrid car and trashing global warming. There is no reason to snark. The Road Foreman of Engines gets it.

The sign is in the Cold Spring Shops collection. It is a replica of (variously) a Pennsylvania or Chicago and Western Indiana or Terre Haute Line roundhouse sign, depending on the observer.

21.4.08

THE MODEL OUTPERFORMS REALITY.

One of these days, I'll figure out how to dub some music on these things. I can report that some of the knocks have been taken out of the mechanism, the gearbox is running smoothly, and I'm fettling out some of the small valve gear components.



I have also found pictures and plans of some intriguing twelve-wheel bathtub gondolas. In a dusty corner of the library I also located a document by comrade N. N. Nyetnyev, describing some research at the Lomonosov Institute on rotary couplers. We thus have evidence, dear reader, that the Soviet Union went the Virginian Railway one better on coal transport and invented the unit coal train, during the Third Five Year Plan. All glory to Comrade Stalin!

I am also pleased to report that my videos, with or without dubbed sound, are not art, and therefore do not have to be taken down when they become too controversial.
GETTING THE MATRICULANTS RIGHT. Here's a jaded view of the Ivies, going for the exotic.
This goes to show something those of us who hoist the almost unbearable privilege of having gone to graduate school there already know, which is that there are some extremely strange young women at Yale. Worthies there might consider the wisdom of a simple question on the admissions application, "Are you extremely odd?" I am not suggesting that the extremely odd be excluded from Yale, only that a quota might be a good idea. This goes for faculty hiring as well.
And here's a jaded view of Wesleyan, where headquarters would like to tone down the exotic.

[Wesleyan sophomore Ben]Seretan, who currently works at the front desk in the Admissions Office, added that this is only one component of the Roth administration’s new marketing strategy.

“I’ve noticed with the new administration a re-branding paradigm shift that’s happening,” Seretan said. “It’s all about academic excellence and ‘excellence’ in general as opposed to uniqueness and idiosyncrasy. I don’t even know what excellence means.”…

I don't make this stuff up.

So far, the boutique colleges are in a position to tinker at the margins of odd, because their oddities have not yet proven dangerous to themselves or to others. The expression "creative destruction" has meaning beyond the economics of competitive capitalism, and it implies tradeoffs in university admissions policies that are only now being explored. The boutique colleges might help those of us who do the heavy lifting by backing off from treating extreme difference (or as Professor Smith puts it, "odd") as a virtue.

20.4.08

WE WILL PREVAIL. Today was a tease for the summer to come. The Northern Illinois steel band offered its spring concert. Before the concert, the CAFE Steel Band from Baltimore, regular guests at our event, offered an outdoor performance in the art campus courtyard. I regret not having brought my camera. There is a source of concert videos, and I did see a few digital cameras in action, but nothing uploaded to the most obvious source yet.

I enjoy the efforts of the pan faculty, and the Baltimore program, to demonstrate the versatility of the instrument. In addition to traditional and new calypsos, the university band offered the concluding movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony (take that, Josef Stalin!) while the Baltimore band adapted one of the swing-era numbers (it includes a quote from Yankee Doodle and some animated bass drum, help me with the title.) Although the G.I. generation that kicked back to such tunes is passing from the scene, the kids are determined to keep the music alive.

I also obtained enough information to work out that calypso composer Lord Kitchener adopted that stage name which honors a British commander whose work in South Africa met with the approval of Tribagonians.

There will be a fall concert on November 16 (that's a new offering for the steel band) and the 2009 spring concert is set for Sunday, April 26.
THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. Chicago Tribune reporters Jodi S. Cohen and Stacy St. Clair have obtained Steven Kazmierczak's graduate school application essays.

Well before his murderous rampage at Northern Illinois University, Steven Kazmierczak described himself as a victim who had overcome hard times.

In graduate school applications, reviewed exclusively by the Chicago Tribune, Kazmierczak wrote that his own mental-health struggles would one day enable him to help others—a vision that tragically imploded Feb. 14 in one of the deadliest campus shootings in U.S. history.

"For as long as I can remember, I have always been an extremely sensitive individual, and feel as though I am able to empathize with other people's emotional and social needs," he wrote. "However, some of my peers were not very understanding or accepting, and I feel as though I was victimized to a certain degree during my adolescent years."

There's nothing unusual about feeling victimized. I suspect that the Peanuts strip in which Charlie Brown admits to feeling out of place on earth appeals to a lot of adolescents. It certainly did to me.

Claiming some special insight into the minds of others, however, is a bit much, particularly in a youngster. The faddish preference of many admission committees for essays that cross the line into pity-parties (all in the name of demonstrating that the applicant is a striver, or has been oppressed in some way) is likely to induce tales of woe, such as the above, that are not going to be received in the way the reporters suggest.

The essays offer unprecedented and chilling insight into the mental-health troubles of the 27-year-old graduate student who two months ago fatally shot five students at Northern Illinois University, wounded 16 others and then killed himself.

Before doing so, Kazmierczak went to great lengths to hide his past. He removed the hard drive from his computer, tossed out his cell phone's memory card and left no suicide note.

And so the voice of the killer has been absent as people have tried to understand what happened.

Or to confirm their own priors?

But in four personal statements he submitted to NIU and University of Illinois graduate schools, Kazmierczak lays out in his own words the history of his emotional troubles.

The records, accessed under the Freedom of Information Act, show an intelligent man determined to reinvent himself after a troubled adolescence. They relate the alienation he felt as a high school student, his parents' decision to place him in a group home and the help he got from an inspirational social worker.

Perhaps so. But perhaps here is somebody who makes too much of the usual adolescent hassles. Consider this quote, which a reader could interpret as somebody saying "There's nothing wrong with me, the world is messed up." Perhaps a bit of that Garrison Keillor Minnesota wisdom, applied at the right time, might have served him better than the therapeutic establishment.

"In hindsight, I feel that this was largely a result of the sensitivity that I often exhibited toward other classmates, which was not necessarily accepted by others," he wrote in his personal statement to U. of I., the essay in which he most thoroughly writes about his troubled past.

Kazmierczak wasn't without friends, though. In high school, he often hung out with the "anti-clique," a group whose members wanted to show they didn't care if they weren't popular.

"He felt lost and disconnected in spite of his friends," former classmate Justin Hammang said.

Kazmierczak wrote that he learned techniques for dealing with stress during counseling sessions with social workers, but he still "felt profoundly lost."

Let's face it, middle and high school can be a real downer, even for people who are in the favored cliques. Add to that the relatively recent phenomenon of young people with incomplete productive skills and the prosperity to enjoy a lot of leisure time, and there will be troubled people. Being stressed, however, is different from being lost. Being stressed to no purpose is yet another matter. The article suggests, however, that Mr Kazmierczak's parents did not apply the inordinate pressure to Be Somebody (preferably a lawyer or hedge fund manager) that contributes to more than a few unhappy students and the midlife crises to come. But he was searching.

On Sept. 7, 2001, he enlisted in the Army, according to the Pentagon.

Kazmierczak told friends he was kicked out of the Army after military officials discovered his past psychiatric problems. He received an administrative discharge on Feb. 13, 2002.

On his undergraduate application to NIU, dated Feb. 21, Kazmierczak listed himself as a veteran. However, when he applied to the U. of I. four years later, he wrote that he had never been in the military. It was an equivocation perhaps done to avoid answering the next question: "If yes, did you receive a less than honorable discharge?"

Again, Kazmierczak answered, "No."

That lie is not his greatest crime.The greater crime is that somewhere he was led to believe that acting for the common good was something desirable, a belief that admissions committees abetted. Let me quote Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Ch. 11: "I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."

"I truly do feel as though I would be an altruistic social worker, mainly due to my past experiences, because I view myself as being able to relate to those segments of society that are in need of direction," he wrote.

Despite the essays' sincere tone, admissions officers and mental-health experts can glean little from such statements, said Jerald Kay, chair of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on college mental health.

Most applicants, Kay said, paint themselves in a positive light, and unless the writings are incoherent or threatening, they do not have enough depth to raise red flags.

"You have to give the student the benefit of the doubt," Kay said.

Higher education, United States style, is generous with second (and third and further) chances, and Mr Kazmierczak did well at Northern Illinois. There is a lot of benefit in being in a new setting where whatever preconceptions others had of you from high school or earlier no longer matter. On the other hand, there is a danger in selling the idea of "making a difference" as the purpose of university. (I leave for another day whether an applicant who is skeptical of some notions of "social justice" -- by definition, all justice systems are social -- or of preferred "dispositions" will admit to such things on an application form.)

Kazmierczak's father confirmed his son's desire to "make a difference in the lives of those of whom I am able to connect with."

"My son always wanted to help people," he said. "He had a lot of support growing up. He wanted to make sure others had that same kind of support."

Until something went terribly wrong.

There's still no known motive for his killing spree, and it is unknown why he chose his alma mater, a campus he wrote about with such gratitude. His final, brutal act couldn't have been further from the goals he espoused in his applications.

"I feel as though I needed to genuinely express myself so that those who read this statement can understand my strong desire to give back [sic] those in need of guidance and a helping hand," he wrote. "Everyone, regardless of where they come from, may need someone to rely on in their time of need."

Mr Kazmeierczak leaves his father with unanswered questions.

Robert Kazmierczak, a 66-year-old retired letter carrier, said he regrets that he may never know what prompted his only son to take such a violent turn.

He struggles with some aspects of the case, the minor details that suggest his son underwent a radical transformation before the shootings. For example, he said Steven didn't smoke but police found cigarettes in his hotel room and nicotine in his system. "I don't know what happened," Robert Kazmierczak said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I wish I did. I wish I could find out the answers."

As do I. Sometimes a dad does all that he is capable of, and the son disappoints.

Meanwhile, this was another difficult weekend in Chicago. The police define weekend differently from the press, but the count of dead and injured exceeds that for one bad afternoon at Northern Illinois.
HERE ONCE THE EMBATTLED FARMERS STOOD,
AND FIRED THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
.
(Relocated from the April 2007 archive.)

Please visit Forward Movement's chronology of the events of April 18 and 19, 1775, with excerpts from primary sources, and the Right Wing Nut House exegesis of "Paul Revere's Ride."


"Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Photo courtesy S. Ells in Thoreau Country.
Let [petty] tyrants shake their iron rods,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains.
We fear them not, we trust in God.
New England's God forever reigns.
William Billings, Chester. (The version I learned included the "petty.")
THERE WILL BE GOOSEBUMPS. Ivy League Conservatives have video of the U.S. Army Chorus singing part of Battle Hymn of the Republic for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Executive Mansion.

There are several arrangements of the hymn in use. This arrangement omits the "fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel" and concludes with "let us die to make men free," the original wording.

18.4.08

THOSE CULTURAL-STUDIES HOTHOUSES. I am a bit too tired to extend my references to the Diet of Worms and the Holy Inquisition to attempt a witticism about feminists dancing on the head of ... .

Let me instead commend this Adam Kissel post at The Torch that concludes with this rebuke to one of Colorado College's Grand Inquisitors. It is the Quote of the Week.
The terribly low respect for free expression by [Colorado College director of institutional research and planning Amanda] Udis-Kessler is yet another reason for Colorado College to feel very, very ashamed. Dialogue sometimes feels a bit disrespectful; it's a hazard of vigorous debate. Adults in college are strong enough to take it, but maybe that's not true at Colorado College.
What was I saying about the logic processes of the assessors of the obvious, or about the disservice a hothouse environment does the classes it is supposed to protect?
WHY I CALL IT ASSESSING THE OBVIOUS. Minding the Campus points to a statement from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about the assessment fad.
Ongoing assessment diverts teachers from teaching. Instead of preparing their courses, meeting with students, or grading papers—in short, executing their teaching duties—they must spend a substantial amount of time worrying about how to assess what they teach. Moreover, academic deans, instead of overseeing assessment activities, might be better engaged in useful activities such as developing young faculty or securing grants. No one, to my knowledge, has done a serious cost-benefit analysis of whether the innumerable hours faculty and administrators expend on assessment could be better used on activities that directly benefit students. No one knows what opportunities have been lost to the demands of devising and implementing assessment instruments.
If the professors are not doing the assessing, the essayist suggests, the hired help is.

Universities, where much of the actual teaching is done by inexperienced graduate students, do not expect their research-oriented faculty to perform assessment. Indeed, many prestigious university professors have no idea what assessment is. At the most highly rated universities, assessment is carried out by staff hired expressly for that task. For example, the University of Virginia has a Department of Institutional Assessment and Studies that reports directly to the State Council of Higher Education. It is unlikely that the state would not accredit its own state-sponsored, tax-supported university.

The real scandal of outcomes assessment, the one nobody talks about, is that the methods used to assess usually produce very little worthwhile data. Departments and programs create assessment tools though a process that (1) sets goals for student learning, (2) gathers evidence of whether students have learned what is expected, (3) interprets the information gathered, and (4) adapts teaching methods in light of the evidence. Every social scientist knows that the only valid way to measure human phenomena is with double-blind experiments in which neither those who actually administer the tests nor those who take them know what’s being tested.

Of course, this is impossible when assessing college programs. Students know exactly why they are being assessed. Even worse, faculty and administrators whose programs are being assessed not only are the people administering the assessment instruments, but they are often the people charged with devising them. Such a system is easily abused since no one wants to look bad. Measurements tools are constructed that simply validate what teachers and administrators are already doing.

Put briefly, the essay identifies two problems. First, if there are assessment professionals, they are likely graduates of the colleges of deaducation, otherwise known as the home office of academic mediocrity. Second, if the assessment is supposed to produce constructive self-criticism, there has to be a Holy Office somewhere to identify the sinners (or is it running dogs of capitalism? I get my zealots confused) and specify the appropriate penance. I disagree with the claim that double-blind experiments are the only valid measurement tool.

Apparently I am not alone in characterizing the activity as assessing the obvious.
The dirty secret is that teachers pay almost no attention to assessment outcomes. They learn little from the exercise—considering it only another (usually uncompensated) onerous administrative duty—and they often dismiss the findings because of the way accrediting agencies structure the activity. Since assessors cannot be experts in every academic field, they require that every department and program aggregate information. The people doing the assessing are not capable of judging the merits of syllabi, tests, and papers from outside their field of study. Thus, they make all departments homogenize the “outcomes” into a form comprehensible to a generic reader. The problem is that students learn chemistry differently than they do a Dostoyevsky novel, and assessment measurements that attempt to aggregate information across disciplines may miss this important difference.
As if the graduates of the college of deaducation could distinguish Dostoevsky from Lobachevski in the first place, but I digress.

The post concludes with a reminder of the duty of the successful professor.
Teachers assess all the time. They read student papers and exams to discover if students have learned. They ask questions in class and engage students in discussion. They look over student evaluations to see if the way they are associating with students is being well received. They are always trying to find better ways to help students grasp the material. Why do they need to spend time in another elaborate and meaningless type of assessment? They don’t—and it’s time to say so.
Amen.
GET YOUR TICKET AT THE STATION ON THE ROCK ISLAND LINE. There was a joke, in those early years of Amtrak before the opt-out railroads had to opt in, about the lady who had to get to Moline in the worst way. The punchline: Sorry, ma'am, the Rocket just left.

Now comes a proposal to restore the Des Moines Rocket.

The trip from Iowa City to Chicago would take about five hours with a train traveling up to 79 mph. A one-way adult ticket could range from $25 to $68, based on fares for comparable routes.

[Amtrak spokesman and onetime WNIU newscaster Marc] Magliari said the service would be popular with college students, especially the many Illinois natives who attend the University of Iowa. The university's hospital facilities are also a draw to the area, he said.

Others would likely take the train to visit casinos in the Quad-Cities area, officials said.

The aforementioned Des Moines Rocket reached Iowa City in 4 hours 25 minutes on the timetable in effect in June of 1954, and the Rocky Mountain Rocket was there 3 hours 54 minutes after leaving Chicago. The Rock Island line was clapped out at the time the railroad liquidated, although it is now in shape for light axle-loading, multi-wheeled steam locomotives (of five coupled axles rather than seven) as well as a cousin of the Rock Island's war baby Northerns. The planners anticipate more work.

At the request of the Illinois Department of Transportation, Amtrak in January completed a study on establishing passenger-train service between Chicago and the Quad-Cities. Parts of that plan were incorporated into the study of the Iowa City to Chicago route.

Iowa officials also have asked for a study on extending the route to Des Moines. That should be ready in late 2009, Magliari said.

Illinois is also looking at a new Amtrak line running between Rockford, Ill., and Dubuque.

What the article doesn't tell readers is that there is a railroad currently capable of supporting 100 mph passenger train operation, serving the riverboats at Clinton as well as the universities at DeKalb, Illinois; and Boone, Iowa; with a short bus connection from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. That railroad, however, is property of the passenger-unfriendly Union Pacific.
ANOTHER GIANT PASSES. Word reaches Cold Spring Shops of the passing of Harvard's Hendrik S. Houthakker, who is an escapee from the Third Reich as well as a Knight Commander with Star in the Papal Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great.
Houthakker, who is not Catholic, said he does not believe joining an equestrian order will mean he will be obligated to ride a horse. "At least I hope not," he said, "because I am not a horseman."
There was nothing that focused the mind quite like the letter, over his signature, that ran "If you are able to incorporate these comments while submitting a manuscript of not more than 4,500 words we will be pleased to reconsider."

We extend our sympathies to Professor Houthakker's family.
I SLEPT THROUGH THIS ONE. An earthquake with its epicenter in Illinois? There was another one, in June of 2004, that I also slept through.

17.4.08

IT'S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME. Our friends the White Sox made their stadium available for a Notre Dame-Northern Illinois baseball game.

Notre Dame and former Northern Illinois baseball coach Dave Schrage moved along just fine until both teams stood at home plate for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Feb. 14 NIU campus shootings.

"That's when it really hit me," Schrage said. "And I was glad we were able to do this."

Northern Illinois and Notre Dame played baseball on Wednesday night at U.S. Cellular Field. But the result, a tough 5-4 loss for the Huskies, won't be the first thing remembered when people look back on this game.

This was about a university and a community coming together again to remember the past and push toward the future.

The weather cooperated for the game (boxscore) which establishes a new attendance record for Northern Illinois baseball.
THE WRONG KIND OF EXCITEMENT.

Panic over for the moment.

CAMPUS ALERT CANCELED

4:50 p.m., 4/17/08

Due to today's events, the Counseling & Student Development Center in Campus Life Buildingn 200 will be open today until 8 p.m. and will reopen Friday morning at 8 a.m. Campus Life Building 100 is also open until 8 p.m. tonight for students who would like to talk to each other about today's events or speak with a counselor.

Sign of the times.



As of 4.00, here is the status.


3:50 p.m., 4/17/08

The Health Services building and the adjacent Telecommunications building are the only buildings that have been evacuated. Occupants in buildings surrounding that complex (Adams, Williston, Wirtz, etc.) are asked to not exit the sides of their buildings that face Health Services. All classes are being held as normal. No classrooms have been affected by this closure.

2:54 p.m., 4/17/08

Campus police are on the scene and are securing the building with the assistance of a canine unit. More information will be posted as it becomes available.

2:18 p.m., 4/17/08

A bomb threat targeting the NIU Health Services building (near the intersection of Lucinda Avenue and Normal Road) was received today around 2:00 p.m. Police have cleared the building. No pedestrian or vehicular traffic will be allowed in that area until further notice.

Updates, if warranted.

16.4.08

IN THE EVENING CAN THE DAY BE PRAISED. A temperature above 70 degrees, for the first time in a very long time. The warmer air came in on a strong wind.


Whitecaps here?

The wind disarranged the latest additions to the northeast entrance of Cole Hall, which serves as the unofficial official memorial site, after the other memorial sites have been removed for archiving.


It's one year since the Virginia Tech massacre, and the Lutheran Campus Ministry has added crosses honoring the fallen Hokies to accompany those that went up in February. It's still windy.


The people of Virginia Tech have been of great help to us. Our students organized a vigil to express our thanks and our sympathies.


There is rain in the forecast, but conditions were comfortably cool and not humid.



15.4.08

JOINED IN SORROW. Huskies for Hokies.

All members of the DeKalb County community are invited to participate in the Huskies for Hokies Candlelight Vigil at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, in the Martin Luther King Commons.

The event is intended as a show of support and sympathy for the Virginia Tech community, which will be marking the one-year anniversary of a shooting spree on their campus that claimed 32 lives.

Faculty, staff and students from Virginia Tech have been extremely supportive of NIU in the wake of its own shooting tragedy on Feb. 14. Administrators from that school have shared information and advice; counselors briefed their NIU counterparts on how best to help students and assisted in training sessions; and several student groups traveled to DeKalb to meet and comfort NIU students. More than 1,000 VT students participated in a candlelight vigil of their own on Feb. 18 to show support for NIU.

“We really wanted to do something for Virginia Tech because they have done so much for us. They have truly helped in our recovery,” said Brittany Brzezinski, a senior from Libertyville, who is helping to organize the event.

SPELLING OUT THE LOSS FUNCTION. Does it make sense for universities and neighboring elementary and secondary schools to close in response to threatening graffiti?

The campus of St. Xavier University was like a well-guarded ghost town Monday, its classrooms empty, its dormitories shuttered and its every entrance patrolled by school security officers and Chicago police.

That quiet watchfulness spread to neighboring campuses as well, after threatening graffiti was found last week in a university residence hall.

Following St. Xavier's lead, four schools adjacent to the South Side university—Mother McAuley and Brother Rice High Schools, and Queen of Martyrs and Southwest Elementary Schools—closed for the day Monday.

As St. Xavier's students found alternate housing and wondered when classes would resume, the university's decision ignited a debate among campus security experts over whether such a drastic measure was justified over anonymous scrawls in a bathroom stall.

At issue is the balance between keeping students safe in the wake of recent campus shootings in Illinois and Virginia, and overreacting to threats that are often non-specific and untraceable. Acknowledging that the St. Xavier decision is hard to judge without more details of the school's deliberations, some experts said closing a campus risks creating more problems down the road.

Others, however, said that erring on the side of safety should be the new standard.Scott Poland, crisis coordinator for Nova Southeastern University in South Florida, says that closing a school should be the last resort. He advocated instead increased security, meetings to put students on alert and ongoing threat assessments.

"We shouldn't close schools every time there is a threat of violence," he said. "In fact, in most instances—say of a bomb threat or something—you deal with the issue but then return to the operation of the school."

But other school security experts said it was better for school officials to exercise maximum caution. St. Xavier officials said they had no choice after discovering the second of two threats in Regina Hall Thursday, this one reading "Be prepared to die on 4/14."

The St. Xavier threat appears to have been a false positive. To close operations, particularly threats that occur near exam week, is to induce miscreants to use extreme measures to obtain a little extra study time, or perhaps the option of obtaining a grade based on partial information. To reject the threat, however, is to risk a room of dead people. In light of the last year's events, administrators appear to be erring on the side of caution.

In a week that marks the anniversaries of the Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings, others said it would be hard to send students into the area on the day that was so specifically marked.

Later Monday morning, in an apparently unrelated incident, Malcolm X College evacuated its students for several hours after a similar threat was discovered.

In the far north suburbs, Grayslake Middle School was closed about five minutes early Monday, when threatening graffiti was found in a restroom. Police and staff of Community Consolidated School District 46 swept the building and grounds and determined that school could reopen Tuesday.

Also on Monday, Oakland University in Michigan canceled classes and campus activities for two days after threatening scrawls were found. Coastal Carolina University officials in Conway, S.C., suspended classes until Tuesday morning because of a fatal shooting near campus.

The people who make the decisions are aware of the possible perverse incentives.

Officials at St. Xavier said that they only shut down campus after conversations with several parties, including the Chicago police, the FBI and administrators at Northern Illinois University.

School spokesman Joe Moore said that the school has had an emergency continuity plan in place for years, and that it was revised as recently as last year's shooting at Virginia Tech. "There's no question that the national conversation has changed since a year ago," Moore said. "We're taking steps that we might not have considered [before Virginia Tech]."

University officials were tight-lipped about the details of that emergency plan, and what other warning signs may have led them to close. But Brett A. Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, believes that for the school to shut down, "they must have had pretty credible reason to do so.

"It is rare to shut down for several days, he said, and it carries a cost."The shutdown results in accomplishing what the person making the threat intends: to disrupt the school," he said. "There are many implications to that. Now once you have a threat do you shut down every time?"

There is no easy answer to that last question. To treat each threat as a potential Northern Illinois gives too much power to the miscreants. To erroneously disregard a true threat ...

Given the threat assessment, does it make sense for campus police to cross-train as emergency medical technicians?

The medical training provided to Northern Illinois University police officers likely saved lives, but police arriving from other departments did not always take direction, creating what could have been a dangerous situation after a gunman opened fire on campus two months ago, killing five, two NIU officers told a national conference Monday.

Lt. Darren Mitchell told how officers who entered a lecture hall moments after the shooting ended found the gunman, a former graduate student, dead on stage and some students, uninjured, still frozen in their seats. Mitchell and Lt. Todd Henert gave the closing address at a campus security conference hosted by the University of Central Oklahoma, which also Webcast their remarks.

"A lot of people thought our chief was out of his mind," Mitchell said of NIU Police Chief Donald Grady's proposal to train all officers as emergency medical technicians, which was adopted about five years ago. "We've since had numerous occasions where our officers . . . have engaged in lifesaving treatment in order to help people. [Feb. 14] turned out to be the pinnacle . . . of how helpful it was."

We're likely to see some updating of prior beliefs elsewhere. There are other options available to university officials, some of which might keep some people who will be dangerous to others or themselves off campus.
FBI Assistant Executive Director J. Steven Tidwell said campuses need to transform themselves to better identify students who could become violent. "One of the things we are now all doing is building picket fences," he said. Universities should "have enough picket fences that sooner or later you'll see them step over one."
That's easy to say, but somewhat more difficult to implement, as an Inside Higher Ed post on the creative writing of parasuicidals notes.
In a study of undergraduate and graduate students at two Northeastern universities published in Pediatrics in 2006, researchers from Cornell and Princeton Universities found that 17 percent of students surveyed had engaged in self-injurious behavior — defined as purposeful self-infliction of bodily harm, without social sanction and without suicidal intentions.
Relatively few of those individuals become dangerous to others. Does self-injury become a "picket fence"? What about buying a Cubs logo tattoo?

14.4.08

DO THEY BAN THE ONION? Colorado College president Richard Celeste makes a case for sending two heavy-handed satirists before the Holy Inquisition. Robert Shibley of The Torch performs the Fisking. The president makes a less than persuasive case for having the flyers removed. It might have been cleaner for the college to assert ownership over its bulletin boards. That's the procedure inside buildings at Northern Illinois. A poster that does not have a permit stamp from the student association is fair game for recycling, and the permit stamp has a date after which building services will recycle the poster. That procedure, admittedly, is censorious (envision automatic approval for The Rag, as house organ of Feminist Studies, with approval withheld for The Bag.) But to object to the anonymous provenance of the satire? By that logic, the collected works of Herman Zwiebel and offspring are subject to sanction, that is, if complementary copies of The Onion are available in Colorado Springs.
THE TRIUNE NATURE OF AMTRAK. Thus does James Coston, of Chicago's Corridor Capital, parse The Passenger Transportation Problem.

In 1971, Amtrak The Father.

You would not know it from what happened subsequently, but Amtrak was popular in those days.

Passenger loads were large, and Operations was struggling to find extra cars for the trains during peak periods.

Every night we put out an 18-car Broadway Limited. The Zephyr and Empire Builder? Same thing. Each train had the longest consists the Union Station platforms could hold.

At the ticket window and over the telephone I turned away hundreds of applicants for coach and sleeping-car space.

Out on the platforms I saw weekend trains leave for Detroit, St. Louis, and Quincy with seven cars or more. Sometimes Amtrak borrowed extra cars from the commuter railroads around Chicago, something that’s no longer possible now that one commuter agency, METRA, owns the entire fleet.

What was happening was that the American people believed that the federal government was going to save the trains—and grow the train system. Pre-1971, when Americans saw the railroads eliminating trains, they got the message and stayed away. Post-1971, when they saw the federal government committing itself to saving trains and growing the service, they started coming back.

I call the Amtrak we knew at that time “Amtrak I.” This is the period when Amtrak looked the way Congress originally designed it, as a pure Train Operating Company—a single nationwide carrier that owned trains but no tracks and had to rent track space from the privately owned railroads.

I don't recall that Amtrak quite as fondly. The rolling stock, all the talk about "making the trains worth traveling again," was clapped out, timekeeping systemwide left a lot to be desired, and many of the remaining trains were subject to the tender mercies of Penn Central or Missouri Pacific or Southern Pacific or Union Pacific dispatching, and to Burlington Northern's fragile permanent way.

Within a short time came Amtrak the Son.

Shortly after startup, however, on May 17, 1971, the seeds of what I call “Amtrak II” were planted. That’s when a new player, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, entered the picture.

Under Section 403 (b) of the Rail Passenger Service Act, Massachusetts agreed to become — not a railroad, or a Train Operating Company—but a “sponsor” of train service.

This meant the state agreed to pay part of the subsidy for a new train that Amtrak itself otherwise would not have paid for and would not have operated. The new train was a Boston-New York frequency operating over the so-called “Inland Route” via Worcester, Springfield and Hartford.

On November 14, 1971, Illinois got into the 403 (b) game by sponsoring the Illinois Zephyr between Chicago and Quincy.

Over the ensuing 36 years 12 more states have jumped into the train-sponsorship game, especially California, which now sponsors 45 daily round trips on five different route segments.

State-supported trains now account for 158 of the 448 weekday departures in the Amtrak timetable. They’re now the company’s fastest-growing line of business.

In December 2007, the state-supported trains carried just under one fourth of all Amtrak’s passengers and produced about the same proportion of its revenue. The state-supported trains represent a sort of mini-empire inside
of Amtrak.

I call this little empire “Amtrak II.” It’s turning into a big deal.

As Mr Coston goes on to note, the big deal, however, does not receive anything resembling consistent treatment either by the national Amtrak organization or by the participating states. Thus California has its dedicated fleet of split-level rolling stock, Illinois and Wisconsin get whatever three-car blocks of working coaches Roosevelt Road is able to cobble together, and the routes selected in the original Amtrak legislation confer favors on some states. Thus comes not the Holy Spirit, but the Public Choice Vampire.
Amtrak III, as everyone in this room knows, is the Northeast Corridor. Chronologically, the NEC was the third province to come into the Amtrak domain, but as most of the critics have complained over the years, it was so much bigger and heavier than the other two components that it became an empire in itself and almost completely overpowered the other two Amtraks that were supposed to be its partners, not its subordinates.
The tale suggests unexploited potential for favor-trading.

Now Amtrak wasn’t just a Train Operating Company anymore. It was a real railroad, with an owned-and-operated network of tracks, stations and yards. And the part of the passenger network that Amtrak now owned was bigger, busier and more expensive than all of its other lines of business and commanded far more of management’s attention, staff and budget.

Essentially, Amtrak became the NEC, the NEC became Amtrak, and both the company’s behavior and its treatment by Congress and the media have become problematic and fraught ever since. All of Amtrak’s meager capital budget goes into the investment-hungry NEC. The long-distance network fails to grow and is even scaled back, while the non-NEC corridors grow only by virtue of state funding. The NEC tail wags the Amtrak dog.

Question: why do representatives of the central, southern, and western states keep appropriating money for regressive transfers to influence peddlers, high-value hookers, and Ivy League collegians? Or is the vote-trading more subtle: your Acela trains, our reliever airport, their interstate highway.

Whatever the political dynamics, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Although the Penn Central was represented as a merger of equals, in fact it was more of an absorption of the smaller New York Central into the much larger Pennsylvania.

And while the New York Central was a relatively healthy railroad for its time, having been slimmed down and built up to profitability by its dynamic and reform-mind president, Alfred E. Perlman, the Pennsy was a much larger and very troubled railroad, a huge, bloated and sick corporate dinosaur run by the largest collection of brain-dead managers ever assembled in a single American enterprise.

Remember, the Pennsylvania Railroad first lost money in 1946, the busiest year in the history of the U.S. railroad industry. Demobilized soldiers and sailors were jamming the trains to reach home, and industry was returning to peacetime production. It was virtually impossible for an American railroad to lose money in 1946, yet the Pennsy managed to do it.

AND it kept paying dividends. This was one big, sick dumb railroad—and as the ‘50s turned into the ‘60s the Pennsy got dumber and sicker. The Penn Central bankruptcy kept the Pennsy on life support until the mid-70s, but when Conrail was established and staffed with an elite corps of the nation’s top railroad managers, the last vestiges of the Pennsylvania Railroad were expected to go away.

But they didn’t. At the very moment when the Pennsy was scheduled to die, the USRA preserved its DNA and injected it into Amtrak. When the Northeast Corridor was given to Amtrak, a whole phalanx of Pennsy managers and Pennsy thinking went with it, and inside Amtrak they got a whole new lease on life. Or life support. In effect, Amtrak got a Pennsy transplant. The dead got up and walked, and because the Pennsy-run NEC was the biggest and busiest part of Amtrak, the whole company became something of a three-headed zombie.

But the real villain here is not the ghost of the Pennsylvania Railroad, nor is it the planners at USRA who shed the corpse of the Pennsy onto Amtrak while they built the world’s most successful freight railroad, or even the Pennsy managers themselves.

The real villain is Congress, and a succession of presidential administrations, both of which, then as now, refused to consider the idea of transportation planning and transportation policy as a national responsibility.

Thus the history. Read and understand the article. Then consider the work that has yet to be done.

John R. Stilgoe, Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Graduate School of Design, predicts that trains will once again play a key role in shaping American life. Based on an analysis of real estate investment patterns along railroad corridors, Stilgoe predicts that trains will make an important comeback, and not only for long distances but also back for freight, mail and express packages.

Stilgoe's arguments are based on the increase of estate prices along railroad lines. According to him, investors are purchasing everything from derelict buildings to gravel plots, which can be easily transformed into parking lots when the time is right, and he expects the time will be right when there are 150 million more Americans (i.e., 2050). By then, no more land will be available for roads, and available roads will be full (see also: Europe). Not to mention that if these new railways can get speeds above 90mph, the notions of urban and extra-urban settlement will be altered.

John is a fellow O Scaler. I want to extend his remarks in a way regular readers will find familiar. In many of the corridors of the central and western states, operation at 90 mph or above is a real possibility. It doesn't take fancy equipment (off-the shelf diesels have 103 mph gearing) or fancy signaling (think steam Hiawathas tripping semaphores). It takes the courage to change some of the safety regulations and the discipline of clearing the times of first-class trains, which can include intermodals.

It also takes a change in thinking. Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds, who found the article, contends that the return of railroads to prominence has been in progress. On the freight front, yes. Passenger, not as much, not yet. At Saturday's ferroequinology conference, I teased some people with tales of the world's finest railroad, an easy drive from Lake Forest. I was referring to Union Pacific's Gibbon Junction to the Powder River Basin trunk, three and four tracks that are unlikely ever to see a passenger train. The railroad as we have come to understand it is a wholesale provider of bulk transportation. Passenger trains are only slightly less inconvenient than peddler freight trains.
OUR NEIGHBORS IN CYBERSPACE. A panel of self-described "classical liberals" under the auspices of the America's Future Foundation have identified a number of outstanding student-operated weblogs including our neighbors GOP3.com at Marquette, Panther Talk Live at Milwaukee, The Critical Badger at Wisconsin, The Irish Rover at Notre Dame, and Surveillance State at Indiana.

13.4.08

NASH PAROVOZ, VPYERYED LYETI.

I've had the digital camera for two years but haven't tried the motion (the camera refers to it as video) feature until now. It even records sound.


video

This spin on the test plant revealed a few things that need work. The piston rods are a bit long: they shouldn't be poking through the ends of the extensions at forward dead center. (Keep your prurient thoughts to yourself.) There is still too much friction in the mechanism, and the gearbox runs hot after a few spins.

The test run is successful, because it detected those problems.

The sound feature on the camera is good enough that, when the machine is ready for its debut, I will have a tape of appropriate Soviet music playing. (There is such a record playing during this session, although it's not audible over the clatter of the motion.)