May 8th, 2010


Poet's Corner: Ramallah


in Ramallah
the ancients play chess in the starry sky
the endgame flickers
a bird locked in a clock
jumps out to tell the time

in Ramallah
the sun climbs over the wall like an old man
and goes through the market
throwing mirror light on
a rusted copper plate

in Ramallah
gods drink water from earthen jars
a bow asks a string for directions
a boy sets out to inherit the ocean
from the edge of the sky
in Ramallah
seeds sown along the high noon
death blossoms outside my window
resisting, the tree takes on a hurricane's
violent original shape

by Bei Dao (Zhao Zhenkai) (born 1949)
Translated by Eliot Weinberger (born 1949) and Iona Man-Cheong (born 1950)

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Train talk

Today is National Train Day, so pretend for a moment you're a passenger rail service. You want to give your passengers the opportunity to reach cities that are not served by an existing route, like, say, Madison, Wisconsin. Establishing a new route isn't feasible, nor is changing an existing route. So how about bus service? Good idea. The closest passenger rail station is in Columbus, about 25 miles away. So we'll arrange for bus service to and from Columbus. But just to make sure you're not throwing away money by running empty buses, you tell your passengers the service is only available to people purchasing tickets in advance. Then you can just contract a bus from a local charter service as needed. Sounds like a plan!

So how does Amtrak handle this? By running four buses a day, every day, between Madison and Chicago. Yes, the Chicago that's 150 miles away from Madison. Sensible! Moreso than it sounds, actually. For one thing, unless you're coming from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, or elsewhere in Wisconsin, you're going to have to go through Chicago anyway, and since there's only one route that goes to Columbus, some of those people might end up with long layovers in Chicago waiting for that one train. So you may as well just run the bus from there. The Chicago-to-Madison route also allows them to make other stops along the way: Rockford, Beloit, and Janesville. So it's not as dumb as as it seems at first glance.

What is kind of crazy is that you can't use the Amtrak bus service to get from Madison to Chicago or vice versa unless you're coming from or going to some third destination by train. There is a market for bus service between Madison and Chicago—there are two different companies running that route, one offering service to the airports and another one that goes to the Loop—so why wouldn't Amtrak want a piece of that action? I mean, if they're going to be making the runs anyway, why not try to maximize your ridership?
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