Sunday musings: Why subways? Rail infrastructure needs, Virtual reality languages

We look at how subways changed New York City and the promise that good public transportation has for the rest of the big cities. A couple of articles take a look at the causes of the Amtrak high-speed rail crash in Seattle. And, we examine whether or not people learn languages better through virtual reality or from immersion techniques.

The Case for the Subway

subwaySubway systems had an enormous effect on making New York City the most important city in the world. Workers could live anywhere in the city and be at work conveniently. New far-flung suburbs could be tied into the business centers. Shoppers could buy at one end of Manhattan and get home easily. And, today the subways in NYC and other metropolises are being allowed to degrade. As they slowly move into disrepair, the lifeblood of the city stops flowing, offices become less productive, stores see decreasing sales, and the public facilities, museums, and libraries are hurting.

The bottom line: Major cities with subways need them. Those without cannot compete.

It was the arrival of the subway that transformed a seedy neighborhood called Longacre Square into Times Square, that helped turn a single square mile surrounding the Wall Street station into the center of global finance, that made Coney Island an amusement park for the masses. It was the subway that fueled the astonishing economic growth that built the city’s iconic skyscrapers. Other cities had subways, but none threaded through nearly as many neighborhoods as New York’s, enabling it to move large numbers of workers between Manhattan and the middle-class boroughs — a cycle that repeated itself every day, generating ever more wealth and drawing in ever more people.

As New York evolved over the decades, the subway was the one constant, the very thing that made it possible to repurpose 19th-century factories and warehouses as offices or condominiums, or to reimagine a two-mile spit of land between Manhattan and Queens that once housed a smallpox hospital as a high-tech university hub. When the city is in crisis — financial or emotional — the subway is always a crucial part of the solution. The subway led the city’s recovery from the fiscal calamity of the 1970s. The subway was at the center of the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after the Sept.11 attacks. The subway got New York back to work after the most devastating storm in the city’s history just five years ago.

Straightening of curve at Amtrak derailment site in Dupont had not been state priority

Click here to subscribeThe introduction of high-speed rail into the country has been lagging. Even when funding is available, state appropriators manage to steer money away from projects for new rail upgrades to other projects that they consider more pressing. Hence, the dangerous curve outside of Seattle was never straightened, even with available federal funding of $800 million. The final use of infrastructure money is figured at local levels.

The corridor between Lakewood and Nisqually “includes unsuitable sharp curvature,” said the state’s long-range plan, written in 2006. “A new connection, largely on structure because of differences in elevation, with a speed limit of one hundred mph will be required.”

Yet the curve remains, a symbol of unsteady political support in the United States for rapid-rail infrastructure.

Even with $800 million in Obama administration stimulus money, Washington state didn’t rebuild it.

Here is another story about the Seattle Amtrak crash. It covers four factors that led to the deadly Amtrak derailment.

Learning a language in VR is less embarrassing and more effective

Is it really easier to learn a language without the fear of embarrassment? The educators testing virtual reality are betting that it is. When language learners can talk with a machine rather than a person, learning may be faster and better.

The average language learner typically takes up to six months before even trying to engage in a conversation, but with Mondly, the fear of screwing up is reduced. As you’re talking with a responsive character that looks like a human—with all the non-verbal signifiers such as facial expressions and body language cues that go with real-life interactions—it feels like an actual conversation, but without any of the jitters that come with thinking you’re sounding stupid.

Here’s how it works: The AI-powered bots prompt you with the appropriate sentences, and in addition to listening to them say the words, you can access dialogue boxes that show them in writing. You’re then required to select your appropriate response from the list, and say it out loud. If your pronunciation is good enough (and the AI is working as it should), the virtual character will “understand” you, and the conversation will progress, much as it would in real life.

Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.