December 17, 2004


Cell phones in the air: Convenience or curse? (Rick Hampson, 12/16/04, USA TODAY)

Just when air travel seems to have become our national gripe, along comes a possibility to make us appreciate flight as we now know it: A cabin full of people talking, loudly and simultaneously, on their cell phones.

Watched It Happened One Night yesterday evening, a worthy reminder of the social capital we lose through things like public cell phone use and non-public transportation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2004 10:59 AM

Quick synopsis of It Happened One Night to appreciate the analogy please.

Posted by: AWW at December 17, 2004 11:04 AM

In precisely which way is airline travel not public?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 17, 2004 11:06 AM


Millionaire heiress (babelicious Claudette Colbert)flees Daddy who disaproves her quickie marriage. Ends up broke and on bus with sarcastic newsman (Clark Gable). There's a great scene on the bus where everyone joins in singing Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, with everybody contributing their own verses. Elsewhen they save a starving woman who passes out and her little boy.


It is, now...but too fast.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 11:27 AM

If you tried that today we'd have another great scene on the bus: you get beaten up and robbed, and everybody on board laughs at you (driver included.) Don't quit your day job, TimeZoneBoy.

Posted by: joe shropshire at December 17, 2004 11:38 AM

You DO realize that movie was a work of fiction, right? It's like you're pining for the days when a building and loan manager could lose 8 grand and have the rest of the town come to his rescue with bushell baskets of cash. It makes for a great film but is not an accurate representation of the way things were.

Posted by: Governor Breck at December 17, 2004 11:40 AM

It was interesting flying out of Dallas on Monday seeing how fast the cellphones came on in the plane as soon as the captain announced it was OK to turn them back on again after landing -- in fact, a couple of phones started ringing immediately after they were turned back on, and at least one call I heard was from someone waiting a few hundred feet away inside the terminal.

Going by that, the potential for a cacophony of ring tones in the future as flights approach landing is pretty high (on the other hand, had the folks on Flight 93 never turned their cellphones back on in-flight, we would either not have a White House or a U.S. Capitol today).

Posted by: John at December 17, 2004 12:06 PM

How do we lose social capital because people get to talk to someone that they DO want to talk to (on a cell phone) instead of talking to people that they DON'T want to talk to (on a bus)?

Posted by: Brandon at December 17, 2004 12:53 PM


Ever take a long train ride?

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 1:04 PM


Ever ride a bus regularly?

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 1:05 PM

I once took a 36-hour train ride in China. It was one of the highlights of our trip. We were the only Westerners on the train.

But it's not something you can do every week.

I have to add that (until recently) I saw more cell phones in Beijing & Hong Kong than I ever saw here at home. We didn't catch up until probably 2002.

If you want privacy on a plane, fly one of the smaller Embraer jets with a single row on one side.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 17, 2004 1:18 PM


when's the last time you had a phone conversation--conversation, not mere interaction--with someone you don't know?

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 1:20 PM

"Hey, how ya doin'?...
"Uh huh."...Uh huh."
"Can you hear me?"
"I'll call you back."
"What? Oh can you here me now?"
"Uh huh."
"Uh huh."
"So how's she doin'?"
"Uh huh."

IT'S A FOUR HOUR FLIGHT and you're right next this person.

No! A thousand times no!!

Posted by: Bartman at December 17, 2004 1:22 PM

Used to work for Greyhound, as a matter of fact --in the Portland, Maine station.

Posted by: joe shropshire at December 17, 2004 1:25 PM

Take any busman's holidays?

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 1:48 PM

Yes, as a matter of fact I've taken several long train rides. Yes, even outside of my time zone into exotic lands you fear to tread like Indiana! I've also taken long bus rides many times and once hitchhiked from Montreal to Hartford (which was dreadful). Your point being?

Posted by: Governor Breck at December 17, 2004 2:04 PM


Talk to anyone?

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 2:06 PM

What is so important about talking to people you don't know? How does that generate "social capitol"?

Posted by: Brandon at December 17, 2004 2:13 PM

I did -- used to ride to Boston all the time. I also remember riding down to New York to see a play Off-off-off-off Broadway (this was twenty years ago, I think the employee round trip was something like $80.) Took a cab from Port Authority to 40-something street, got out, there's a woman waiting for a cab so like an idiot I grin at her and say "Hey, I brought you a cab." She looks at me and says, "Yeah, and you're five minutes late."

Posted by: joe shropshire at December 17, 2004 2:16 PM


Note that you remember it.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 2:32 PM

Yes, I talked to many people. When I was hitching I had to bail out of a guy's car on an off ramp at 25 per because he had the old motto "Gas, grass or a$$, nobody rides for free" and I had neither money for gas nor grass, so guess what was left. The moral of the story is "Don't hitchhike kids!" So, again, what's your point? Besides that you're secretly a hippie Luddite who fears technology.

Posted by: Governor Breck at December 17, 2004 2:51 PM

Of course I do. I also remember cleaning vomit out of the bathrooms; the guy who locked himself in one of the stalls with a gun; getting stabbed in the backside with a pair of scissors by an irate camp kid, after we told her the Port Authority guys lost her trunk (note to camp parents: when you put your kid on the bus, be nice to station attendant. Otherwise they'll tag your kid's stuff to Portland, Oregon -- hey, it's a mistake anyone could make -- and your brat will be wearing the same underwear for the next five weeks. Not that they won't anyway.) What's your point, oj? I like other people just fine -- doesn't mean I want to smell their b.o. for six hours at a stretch. That's not a bonding experience.

Posted by: joe shropshire at December 17, 2004 3:10 PM

There's that other movie, 'Trains Planes and Automobiles,' I think it was called, where they tried to get the people on the bus to sing the old familiar songs, and the only one everybody knew was the theme from the Flintstones.

That was only a movie, but it rang true to me.

Social capital isn't very fungible. About 20 years ago, we went to something called Le Festin du Gouvenour in Montreal, where we played at being 17th century immigrants to Canada. We all sang all the songs that both French speakers and English speakers know the words to: Frere Jacques.

I suppose we might have sung Adeste Fideles in Latin, but it wasn't supposed to be Christmas.

I have a fund of stories about strangers I've met in my travels. Most of them are about how stupid or obnoxious they were.

There was the guy on the crowded Honolulu bus who pretended to machine gun all the pedestrians we passed. It was perfectly clear that if he had had a machine gun, he wouldn't have been pretending.

There was a social capital investment I'd just as soon have lost.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2004 3:57 PM

One of the best pieces I've ever written was about a bus ride from St. Paul to Seattle a few years ago. An excerpt is available here.

But doesn't all this traveling break the Time Zone rule?

Posted by: Timothy at December 17, 2004 4:20 PM

Joe, Harry, Gov and Brandon:

It's amusing to read your comments and note how they prove OJ's point for him. You're living _in_ that dysfunctional society. How would you know if there could be something better?

For my part, I once sat next to a U.S. Special Forces soldier out of Afghanistan on one long cross-country flight, which was a learning experience. On another, I was placed next to an extremely nice Southwestern native who gave me his headphones so that I could hear the movie, once he found out that I had no cash to pay for them myself (wouldn't take no for an answer, either); not much of a learning experience, but some nice conversation (after the movie, anyway). I've sat next to a number of other interesting people. My latest flight was to Arizona, just a week ago, and my rowmate on one connecting flight was a lot less pleasant - not nasty, but borderline disturbed. I've been next to Bush haters and Bush lovers, Clinton haters and Clinton lov...well, fans, and everything in between. And it pays dividends, of a sort, to talk to them all.

I'm not a naturally gregarious person. But while I carry a cellphone with me, it's always off. And if there was a bus that would take me to work, I'd use it.

Posted by: M. Bulger at December 17, 2004 4:28 PM

Anytime you have a bunch of people who don't know each other stuck together, the alternative is to talk or do something with each other or be bored by the tedium. Given that people back then did not have walkmans, gameboys, or other small electronic gadgets to keep them occupied, you had to be open to talking to people.

That happens to be a social skill, and in exercising it you are making bonds with your fellow countryman, neighbors, or humanity. That is the social capital I believe OJ is talking about. Since the need to exercise that social skill is now less, people don't have it and it's a lost art. We are content to be isolated and not interact in a room/bus/train of strangers. But it is a social loss.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 17, 2004 6:14 PM

I have yet to have a conversation on public transportation that was less boring than not. There's almost no overlap between what I find interesting and what normal people find interesting. That's why I hang out here.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 17, 2004 9:21 PM



Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 9:51 PM


But they all knew the theme.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 10:05 PM

That was fiction.

Reality is a deranged rummy who wants to kill you.

I'll drive myself, thanks, and at the end visit with people I like.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 18, 2004 1:03 AM


The deranged rummies are driving erraticly in the oncoming lane, and your own.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2004 8:18 AM

Mack's Ear Plugs

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 18, 2004 5:50 PM


As you may know, I have flown a lot. And have had many opportunities thereby to create "social capital."

I can have as many conversational opportunities on a dozen flights as on one long train ride.

Absent airplanes, one long train ride is what I would get in the place of a dozen flights.

Making it all a wash.

What was your point?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 18, 2004 8:59 PM

A dozen train rides is better than a dozen flights, but both beat a dozen drives.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2004 9:26 PM


But, given the vastly longer time to get places on a train, people haven't exchanged train rides for flights one-one, but rather more on the order of one to ten.

It may well be that the advent of airplane travel has actually increased the social interaction of which you speak by increasing frequency much faster than decreasing duration.

It is all well and good to say a dozen rides is better than a dozen flights, but the equivalence you pose is, presuming people react as they do elsewhere to falling prices and increased convenience, false.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 19, 2004 7:05 AM

Yes, it was a mistake to use government power to favor other modfes of travel over trains. Now we should reverse that by charging airline passengers and drivers the true cost of their trips.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2004 8:28 AM


That is pure nonsense. Air travel is taxed at between 20-45% of the ticket cost--what part of the trip cost are airline passengers not covering?

Further, the taxes on cars are used to subsidize other transportation, not the other way around.

But you missed the point--you have made the very likely erroneous assumption that people would make as many trips if trains were the only available means as they do on airplanes.

However, that is almost certainly not true. People probably spend as much time, over more trips, on planes than they would on trains. Therefore, your "social capital" argument is, at the very least, suspect.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 19, 2004 2:56 PM

No, they should take less. Business travel is a blight upon families and the environment. Train travel is superior to air travel, though air superior to auto.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2004 4:41 PM


Your point originally was train travel builds more "social capital" because of the amount of time spent with others on trains exceeded that on planes.

That is simplistic, and true only if the number of trips is the same. There is no reason to believe that is even close to true, hence vitiating your argument.

Whether people should take fewer trips, or business travel is a blight are certainly worthy topics of conversation, but they are not what is in progress.

If you want to take a train, by all means.

But it has been put to a vote. Trains lose.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 19, 2004 10:17 PM


No, that's the point--we warped the market in order to favor cars. It was a mistake.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2004 10:21 PM


Huh? You started with "social capital" and now you are saying the point was the market was somehow "warped" in favor of cars?

Certainly a worthy point to discuss, but not the one you started with.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 20, 2004 6:45 AM


Yes, it is. We destroyed social capital when we foolishly replaced train travel with the interstate highway system.

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 7:56 AM

Smartest move the US ever made.

Unless, of course, you don't mind a continental economy crippled by the network inefficiencies of a rail system.

Even without interstate highways, people would--and did--flock to the previously existing roads to get across country.

You just hate cars because it takes people out of the control you would wish to impose upon them.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 20, 2004 12:00 PM


We control drivers more thoroughly than we ever did any other travelers. 99% of the millions of men reporting for duty in WWII got there by train. Roads were not just surperfluous but an environmental and social blight imposed by the military-industrial complex.

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 12:17 PM

Not in the most important ways: when, where, and how.

Do a network analysis--you will find Roads are not superfluous. Our highway system is almost a perfect analog of the internet. Information does not travel on the internet in huge wads, but rather in small, discreet packets.

There is a reason for that.

But, if you are so confident, put it up for a vote.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 20, 2004 3:49 PM


Too late now, the damage is done. We can achieve the rollback though via taxes and insidious government policy.

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 4:26 PM

I strongly recommend you study network analysis first.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 20, 2004 9:02 PM

The network worked fine.

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 10:04 PM

You don't have to go to the effort of network analysis.

Orrin, just go ask a traffic manager why he prefers trucks to trains.

Before I moved to a place without trains, I used to be amused by the panic that swept the newsroom every few months because nobody could figure out where the newsprint was.

In a boxcar somewhere, but nobody had any idea where. Or when.

There was nothing stopping either passengers or freight managers from using railroads, except they were expensive, inconvenient, unreliable, unpleasant (for passengers) and didn't go where you wanted to go.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 20, 2004 10:52 PM


Yes, the damage is done. The 1940s traffic manager would tell you why trains were superior.

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 11:18 PM


The network won't work fine unless you are willing to devestate the economy, and depopulate vast parts of the country.

The 1940s traffic manager wouldn't tell you railroads are superior in 2004.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 21, 2004 7:09 AM

The highway system did just that and it's been a disaster. Rail today would be vastly superior than roads had spending on them been reversed.

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2004 7:51 AM


No, it hasn't been.
A road network is far more flexible, because interchanges take up very little room, and allow completely decentralized scheduling control.

By contrast, even with the sparsely interconnected network of railroads in the '40s, switching yards were huge, and the entire system relied on centralized control in order to avoid collisions.

Further, you underestimate how much land would be taken up by railroads. To be anything like time efficient, every route would require two tracks, which combined would take up far more land than typical two lane roads.

Additionally, with only two tracks, all traffic in one direction would be limited to the slowest train in that track.

Finally, no matter how you model a rail system, the flux (passengers/minute through a given point) could never be a fraction of what highways achieve.

There may be a way in which rail would be superior, but you haven't yet identified it.

And the above is just the surface of how an exclusive, or even majority, rail network would strangle the nation.

If it is so wonderful, surely you should put it up for a vote.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 21, 2004 12:29 PM


You don't need a vote--just make drivers pay for the system.

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2004 1:42 PM

They already do.

Since virtually all Americans drive, there is no possibility of subsidy. (Anticipating the defense budget argument).

Besides, the operating costs of the system are more than covered by all the taxes motor vehicle owners pay.

Which is where the true subsidy lies, in transferring those funds from highways, which everyone uses, to railroads, which hardly anyone uses.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 21, 2004 9:03 PM

Did magic highway elves build the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System while we slept?

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2004 10:22 PM

No one said they did. But all the taxes on motor vehicle ownership and operation paid for them and their upkeep.

More than that, in fact. If it wasn't for cash transfers from motor vehicle taxes to "mass" transit, the latter would sink like a greased safe.

Just as airline travelers pay for more than the system costs.

BTW--people preferred the existing roads to railroads even before interstates.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 22, 2004 6:47 AM

Not even close.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2004 8:11 AM