When we think about threats to America's energy infrastructure, we usually think about hackers. Hackers, or maybe, somebody taking a bomb to a nuclear power plant.
What we don't usually think about is some guys with guns.
According to a Wall Street Journal report by Rebecca Smith, last April a group of snipers cut the phone lines and internet access near a major electrical substation in San Jose, California, and then fired on the substation for 19 minutes, knocking out 17 transformers.
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In a residential neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, there's a house that looks like most every other house on the block. But it isn't a house. It's a public utility pump station perfectly camouflaged as a house. The inside is filled with massive industrial pumps chugging away. WUNC made a video documentary about the place. Apparently, this is a fairly common way to build electrical generators, pump stations, and other utility infrastructure in residential areas. That quiet house down the street from you? The one where nobody seems to live? Who knows what machinery resides inside… "What's Inside This House On Wade Avenue?"
Paul Graham Raven's "Introduction to infrastructure fiction" is a great, 20 minute explanation of why infrastructure should matter to artists and why art should matter to civil engineers. The invisible ubiquity and vital importance of infrastructure means that it's something we should be talking about, and that we're not talking about.
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On the East Coast of the US, electric demand is so high that utility companies can't take major transmission lines out of commission for maintenance and repair. Instead, workers fly up to the affected cable in a helicopter and work on the line while it's live — coursing with electricity. The helicopter hovers next to the line and the lineman leans out of a little bucket on the side and does his or her job, protected from electrocution by the same loophole that allows birds to safely land on those lines. As long as the entire contraption — lineman and helicopter — don't create a pathway from an area of high energy (the powerline) to an area of lower energy (the ground, for instance, or another power line that operates at a lower voltage) they're good to go. In order to do that, they have to energize the helicopter to the same voltage as the line.
Also check out this longer video with GoPro-style footage of helicopter-assisted transmission line repair and a British documentary following some of the men who do this job. Around six minutes in, the documentary has a nice explanation of how the workers energize the helicopter without killing themselves. Also, according to one of the linemen, "chicks dig it".
If you enjoy the irony in the fact that the great East Coast blackout of 2003 was largely caused by a few untrimmed trees, then you're going to love Jon Mooallem's account of how America's squirrels are wreaking havoc on America's electricity system.
Using a Google news alert, he's cataloged 50 squirrel-caused power outages in 24 states — and that's just since Memorial Day. These aren't small outages either. Several of them have cut power to thousands of people at a time. Back in 1994, a squirrel took out the Nasdaq. These are kamikaze raids and they've led to an interesting phenomenon — technology developed specifically to protect our infrastructure from furry, tree-hopping rodents.
Pictured: The face of pure evil, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from binaryape's photostream
The American electric grid averages 90-214 minutes of blackout time per customer, per year. And that's not counting blackouts caused by natural disasters. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2006, the electricity industry put less than 2/10 of 1% of revenues into research and development. (You can read more about this in a BoingBoing feature I wrote last year
.) Yesterday, the White House released a report
calling for increased spending to upgrade and overhaul this aging — but incredible important — infrastructure.
Elon Musk wants to build a pneumatic tube transportation system capable of whisking people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes. (Xeni told you about this back in July.)
Technologically speaking, it's a perfectly possible thing to do, writes Tim Fernholtz at Quartz. The problem is the high cost of infrastructure development, something have everybody (whether they want to built a train, a highway, or a futuristic hyperloop) tends to underestimate. That's particularly a problem given the fact that whole idea behind Musk's hyperloop is that it could be a cheaper replacement for an expensive high-speed rail line already under development.
Noted tax-avoiders Thames Water's press release trumpets the news that they have excavated the largest ever "fatberg" -- a technical term denoting a huge, impacted lump of "festering food fat mixed with wet wipes" -- from a London sewer.
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The "close-door" button in the elevator, the crosswalk button at the intersection, even the thermostat in your office — there's a good chance that they're all placebos
. Over the last 20 years or so, many (though, weirdly, not all) of these buttons have become technically useless, but are left in place both because it's expensive to replace existing equipment and because, psychologically, they still serve a purpose.
In the 1870s, a French geographer proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to flood a low-lying part of the Sahara Desert
. He pitched it as good for business and good for local environments, writes Ron Miller at i09. But I can't help but think of Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea
— a documentary about the development, culture, and slow, ongoing destruction of a salty, inland sea
that accidentally formed in southern California in the first part of the 20th century.
After living in L.A. for a year without owning a car — an experiment brought on by a lazy reaction to his car battery dying — Paleofuture's Matt Novak has written a fascinating piece about the history of Los Angeles transportation
. It's a history that includes doomed monorails, oil derricks at Venice Beach, and a cameo by Roger Rabbit.
When bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on Monday, my Facebook feed was immediately filled with urgent messages. I watched as my friends and family implored their friends and family in Boston to check in, and lamented the fact that nobody could seem to get a solid cell phone connection.
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Top contenders this year
: Louisville and Fremont, Nebraska. Time to start filling out those brackets, water fans!
Known affectionately as Bertha, this tunnel boring machine has the widest diameter of any boring machine ever built; 57.5 feet. It's being used to dig a highway tunnel under downtown Seattle and it just arrived there today after being shipped from Japan.
I feel this warrants your attention for two reasons:
1) If you live near Seattle, you can actually go get a look at this massive beast before it starts chewing its way through the city. If you like looking at giant machines (or know someone who does) now's your chance. She's coming into the Port of Seattle, Terminal 46, as you read this and there will be ample opportunities to get a look as the pieces are assembled and moved into the nearby launch pit. The Washington State Department of Transportation has suggestions on places to go to get a good view.
2) If, for some reason, you were looking for a new way to lose massive amounts of time on YouTube, Bertha (and boring machines, in general) can help with that. Here's a cutaway animation explaining how boring machines work. Here's a video of Big Becky, another boring machine, breaking through to the other side of a tunnel at Niagara Falls, Canada. (In fact, boring machine breakthrough videos are, in and of themselves, a mesmerizing genre.) And in this video, you can watch the massively long line of support equipment go by in the wake of a boring machine.
Like the people cheering at about :25 into this video, I'm a sucker for dramatic explosions. This one comes from Texas, where the transportation department blew up an old bridge in the city of Marble Falls on March 17th. Also, apparently, it's warm enough in Texas that multiple gentlemen could watch a bridge explode from the comfort of their jet skis.