Welcome to Issue 56.1 of Digestable, your thrice-weekly mouthful of real things happening in the world, minus alarmist pandemic news.
Today’s news, fermented:
On my mind today and this week, as US-based Americans get vaxxed left and right: vaccine apartheid.
As case counts surge around the world, the US continues to sit tight on patents and supply chain management strategies for the zillions of ingredients needed to produce COVID vaccines initially developed by US-based corporations like Pfizer and Moderna.
The thing that’s really tripping me up here is that Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership that accelerated the development of the vaccine, is funded in large part by taxpayer dollars (so are the police and the military—it’s naive to think that taxpayer funded efforts remain in the public decision-making domain). But beyond the bounds of the US, it’s actually up to the World Trade Organization to determine if these corporations release their patents.
The WTO is meeting again on May 5 to ~revisit~ the waiver that would open the info-sharing floodgates; over 100 countries support this shift. Of course, this is a racial justice issue: the highest income countries (all of whom are major colonizers/imperial powers) are the ones where there’s doses aplenty.
Senators Warren and Sanders are calling on the US to rise to the occasion, if it can be called that. I’m hoping to spend some more time on the nuance and calls to action here on Wednesday; feel free to send ideas or things to read my way.
Here’s a bunch of black holes.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Okay here’s the thing: Roller coasters are cool. I was completely obsessed with them in middle school even though I hadn’t actually ridden one and I’m evidently still pretty interested in them these days. I like how they take you through a landscape in a completely unique way and how mechanically simple they can be, just gravity and a track. To finish off this series on theme parks I want to talk about how some of the more complicated mechanics of contemporary roller coasters often combine with the ride’s theming to inject petroculture into what should be a relatively fossil-fuel-free experience. It’s going to be a weird dive into this very niche area of knowledge and I hope you enjoy the ride!
So a roller coaster is basically a wiggly train. In fact it’s simpler than a train because there’s no engine to move the cars around the track. At its most basic, a roller coaster needs a chain to pull the cars up the first lift hill and some brakes at the end of the track to slow it back down. Other than that, it’s just gravity hauling these cars and their passengers around the track. It’s part of what makes coasters so cool - that the most thrilling experiences and extreme forces are just facilitated by gravity.
Theming is the story surrounding a ride: the name, paint job, and the decorations in the queue. Because of their train-like construction, early roller coasters, if they had any theming, were themed as trains. The first ever roller coaster, the Switchback Railway at Coney Island took riders back and forth along a length of beachfront track. Later designs were known as “scenic railways” that would take people through fake mountains and other pieces of scenery. One of the first steel roller coasters, the Run-A-Way Mine Train at Six Flags Over Texas is still being reimagined today with popular iterations like Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Roller coasters weren’t always themed like trains of course, there have been plenty themed after animals like snakes and big cats and many just say what they do, like the world’s oldest roller coaster which is simply called “Leap-The-Dips”.
Different ride designs open up the door for new theming ideas. Suspended roller coasters where riders hang below the track, and “flying” coasters which put riders in a lying down position under the track are both often themed after birds and superheroes like Superman Ultimate Flight, Nighthawk, The Swarm and more. Suspended and flying coasters change the way a rider is oriented in relation to the track, but there’s another design of roller coaster that has had much more profound impacts on what a coaster is and does: the launched roller coaster.
Launched roller coasters ditch the lift hill and gravity-dependent design and instead give trains a burst of speed through a launching mechanism like Kingda Ka’s hydraulically powered cables that haul the train down the the track, a pneumatic (air pressure) launch like on Do-dodonpa or LSM (Linear Synchronous Motor) which uses electromagnets to accelerate the train like on Red Force (again Elon Musk looking at you). I’m not against launched coasters, but they’ve allowed roller coasters to break away from the gravity-fed rides of their past and become something different, something more like a car.
The first launched roller coasters, Space Mountain in Disneyland Paris and the Shuttle Loop coasters were themed after space flight, but as roller coasters have gotten faster and bigger they’re themed more and more after automobiles. The first hydraulic launch coasters Xcelerator and Top Thrill Dragster were both car themed and the trend hasn’t quit. An incomplete list of car and motorcycle themed launched coasters includes Formula Rossa, Lightning Rod, Rita, Verboten, Tron Lightcycle Power Run, Stealth, and sooo many more. An honorable mention is Intimidator 305, which is themed after NASCAR driver Dale Earnhart (gag). It still has a lift hill but uses a cable lift which is able to haul the train much faster than a traditional chain lift giving it that car-like feel. LSM systems, which are able to gradually accelerate and decelerate the train as needed especially increase the combustion motor feel and give us rides like Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure where you’re continually launched and slowed down as your motorcycle shaped cars rev their engines.
The petty point I’m making is WHY would you make a train look like a car when it’s cool enough as it is?! Roller coasters are awesome because they move you in such a unique way, why would you want to make them more like something that already exists? On top of this, launching mechanisms take the elegant and relatively energy efficient system of a gravity-fed roller coaster (and I mean very relatively, traditionally roller coasters are still very materially and energetically intensive) and turn it into an electricity consuming monster. Roller coaster trains can weigh as much as 27 tons without any passengers, and the amount of energy needed to launch that much weight to 60+ mph from a full stop is absolutely incredible. Then you think about coasters like Hagrid’s that launch and slow down trains several times and the computer systems needed to coordinate the firing of all those electromagnets. And where is all that electricity coming from? Fossil fuels of course.
That’s the material connection at the root of this weird rant: making roller coasters look more like cars makes them act more like cars and embeds what could be a unique transportation experience more deeply into a petroculture that says more fossil energy = more fun. Thanks for joining me on this roller coaster of a column, let me know if you want to come ride Ireland’s fastest, tallest (and only) coaster with me when Tayto Park opens.