Scott Edelman writes, "An ad in the December 1916 issue of The Scoop, a magazine 'written by newspaper men for newspaper men,' decries the fact Congress appropriated funds for continued mail delivery by pneumatic tubes in New York City, but failed to do the same for Chicago, and insists the loss of that technology 'would be calamitous.' At the time, 10 miles of two-way, eight-inch tubes running under Chicago delivered 8,000,000 pieces of mail daily. To the suggestion that mail should instead be delivered by trucks rather than pneumatic tubes, the question is asked, 'If we are going backward, why not get a wheelbarrow?'"
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Since the Reagan years, infrastructure spending has been so politically unpopular in America that the nation's roads, ports, power grid and other hallmarks of an advanced society are crumbling, sometimes beyond repair.
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On Wednesday night, the person who runs the Twitter feed for San Francisco's BART system began answering riders' frustrated tweets with frank, honest statements that eschewed the bland "thank you for your feedback" and the chipper "we're working on it!" norms of corporate social media in favor of brutally honest assessments of the sorry state of the system, starting with, "BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality."
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A bridge collapsed Sunday at the eastbound Interstate 10 and Eagle Mountain Road in Desert Center, trapping a truck beneath the debris. (KMIR)
Historic rain in Southern California—the most we've had in July since 1886!—caused a bridge collapse near the town of Desert Center, California over the weekend. The bridge collapse shut down all traffic for hours on the highly-traveled Interstate 10 freeway between Los Angeles and Phoenix. One unfortunate driver plowed his pickup truck into the collapsed structure, and hundreds of other cars were stranded. Alternate routes will require cars and trucks to travel hundreds of additional miles.
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When you make up your own crypto, it's only secure against people stupider than you, and there are lots of people smarter than the designers of the Open Smart Grid Protocol, who rolled their own (terrible) crypto rather than availing themselves of the numerous, excellent, free public cryptographic protocols.
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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. Read the rest
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?" Read the rest
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". Read the rest
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 Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Calls were made, but they got dropped. More often, they were never connected to begin with. There was even a rumor circulating that all cell phone service to the city had been switched off at the request of law enforcement.
That rumor turns out to not be true. But it is a fact that, whenever disaster strikes, it becomes difficult to reach the people you care about. Right at the moment when you really need to hear a familiar voice, you often can't. So what gives?
To find out why it's frequently so difficult to successfully place a call during emergencies, I spoke with Brough Turner, an entrepreneur, engineer, and writer who has been been working with phone systems (both wired and wireless) for 25 years. Turner helped me understand how the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of cell phones works, and why that infrastructure gets bogged down when lots of people are suddenly trying to make calls all at once from a single place. He says there are some things that can be done to fix this issue, but, ultimately, it's more complicated than just asking what the technology can and cannot do. In some ways, service failures like this are a price we pay for having a choice and not being subject to a total monopoly. Read the rest