US: D+

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We have written about this previously, the state of American infrastructure and the problem that is not appealing to the masses, and we can report that not a lot has changed. According to ASCE, the US got a 2017 report card for infrastructure and the outcome is pretty static … D+ (same as it has been for the past half-decade or more). Part of that story has to do with the grading system in the first place, but most (near all) has to do with the dwindling state of infrastructure in the past decade of austerity policy that effectively kicks the proverbial can down the road such that the next generation inherits suboptimal infrastructure in the US.

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Teaching Disasters

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With some success, I have been teaching Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accident” concept with “Engineering Disasters.” It is a show on the History Channel, which is itself an offshoot of Modern Marvels). Each show is broken-down into usually four or five vignettes that are essentially “case studies” in engineering accidents and disasters.

These shows can easily be harnessed to walk students through the normal accident concept by analyzing each of the case studies using a worksheet (I could share this with anyone that wants it njr12 at psu.edu) that distills normal accidents into a few component parts. See below. I use Modern Marvels Engineering Disasters 7 in my course and in the image you see the final two cases — Northridge Earthquakes in CA and the Underground Mine Fires in Centralia, PA — and they are cross-referenced with the three criteria that I use from normal accidents, namely,

  1. That there is a techno-human-nature interaction that is detectable;
  2. That the relational interaction is sufficiently complex (and/or tightly-coupled);
  3. That, with regard to the resulting engineering accident or disaster, it is not reasonable to expect the designing engineers to have anticipated (i.e., predicted) the issues that lead to the engineering accident or disaster in advance.

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The students, from what I can gather, enjoy doing this sort of detective work. After four or five case studies, the students typically know how to apply the criteria and, thus, the concept of normal disasters.

e-Key: Security Infrastructure

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A new piece from The Conversation about security infrastructure investigating security options, including going back to the physical key as an alternative to password overload in online platforms.

The age of hacking brings a return to the physical keyby Jungwoo Ryoo, Pennsylvania State University

 

End of Year Reflection

… while the topics associated with infrastructure were plentiful this year, one of them sticks-out and consistently lingers in my mind’s eye. It is a topic implied in what I saw again just today while scrolling through my facebook and twitter feed.

It is called a number of things, although, apparently, “ruin porn” is term that has come to encapsulate the phenomenon. For example, I saw it today: an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park that “will haunt you.”

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Complexity management and the information omnivores-versus-univores dilemma

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I recently had the opportunity to see the film Sully (2016), which recounts the 2009 emergency landing of a jetliner on New York’s Hudson River. Despite some critical flaws, the film is not only a thrill to watch but also provides much food for thought to those studying infrastructure. Even the flaws are instructive. One of them – certainly the most discussed – regards the portrayal of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that, as per protocol, investigated the accident. Whether due to Hollywood convention or directorial choice, the NTSB team are neatly cast as the villains, out to get the story’s hero by discrediting his decision-making process.

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Incentivizing “Repair” in Sweden

This is an idea worth reviewing — imperfect, of course, but something of this ilk should be developed, at scale. You can see reports on this all over now: the Guardian, CNN, Washington Post, BBC, and so on.

This comes on heels of much needed attention to maintenance, especially in terms of infrastructure, but with a new mechanism for incentivizing these behaviors on a wide swath of products, which re-articulates attention toward “demand” in a fresh way and away from “demand” as merely “voicing political concern” (which seems not to work, other than verbally). 

Sweden proposes tax breaks for repairing things, extra tax on unrepairable things.

Demand for Infrastructure Essential

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After reading a short piece by Christopher Jones (assistant professor of history at Arizona State University and author of Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America, 2014), I was reminded of just how essential “demand” is when it comes to actually getting politicians to invest in shared infrastructure (rather than fall back on ill-advised cost-savings measures that delay or push-back maintenance).

The basic idea is that we are focused on “game changing innovations,” rather than the day-to-day maintenance of our infrastructure. For most of us, of course, effective roadways and public transportation are at least as important as ground-breaking innovations. But Jones goes a step further in our understanding of this, effectively suggesting that innovations primarily promote/aid/help the already wealth, monied upper-class elites who can benefit socially, politically, and financially from emphasis on innovation as opposed to maintenance on, for example, roadways, subways, waterways, and all manner of other ways.

Jones’s solution: Demand it! (after all, we once did, and worked out rather well). See his new piece “New tech only benefits the elite until the people demand more,” and start demanding!

NYC’s circulatory system and skin

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If you’re teaching infrastructure and you need some metaphors to communicate how certain kinds of infrastructure operate, consider this: Street as vein and skin. 

“Streets are both New York City’s circulatory system and its skin.”

Part of New York 101 from the New York Times, Why are the streets always under construction?” is a great short, readable resource for students about the “subterranean layer cake” underneath the streets of any major city.

 

Why NYC Subways Don’t Have Countdown Clocks

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Great, quick read — possibly useful, in form and function, for generating teachable moments and useful learning projects.

Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks: “I honestly just wanted to know why the F train didn’t have clocks. I never expected it to be so complicated.”

*This is similar, in some ways, to previous posts on NYC and natural gas infrastructure.

Internet Railroad?

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I will return to this piece each year teaching STS. Living in Central Pennsylvania, we are sitting right on top of PRR country (Pennsylvania Railroad). It is useful for students to understand the sunk costs, the path dependency (literally, in this case), and the reverberations through history that simple technological infrastructure decisions can make. “How railroads shaped Internet history.”

Infrastructure Game Changers?

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The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a relatively new project called “Game Changers,” which (purportedly) captures and shares with viewers “successful solutions across the major infrastructure sectors to identify the most innovative #GameChangers. Imagine what more we could do if we seize the opportunity to replicate these engineering innovations.”

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New Essay: Hail the Maintainers

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“Hail the maintainers” — a must read.

Innovation is overrated. “Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more.”

* Image from original post: Workers at the Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant, Washington DC.Robert Madden/National Geographic Creative