Doomsday Arks

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With a trillion-ton iceberg cleaving from Antartica, and debate over the exact causes seems never to end, I wonder “what is the infrastructural equivalent of it?” 

One immediate answer is found the giant, offshore seed vault Svalbard (Norway), which was colorfully referred to as one of the “Arks of the Apocalypse” in the New York Times Magazine. The anthropocene stirs, no matter what the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) suggests, and seed banks are a fascinating reflection of this transition for so many reasons. 

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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.

thesinkhole.org

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There is an odd combination of care and mockery with regard to infrastructure devoted entirely to sinkholes. Please, please go to thesinkhole.org and check them out. It is not a complex blog, but it is dead serious (for example, note that a number of the stories covered by the blog record casualties). A curious resource and one to keep your eye on.

Creating windows of opportunity: Installing (social) order at the National Weather Service

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An often overlooked aspect of how infrastructures impose (social) order is through transforming time into a trusty ally. One of their essential functions is to afford  shared frames for enacting a window of opportunity. Like many out there, I have been watching with bated breath as Hurricane Matthew churns a destructive path through the Caribbean and, now, along the coast of Florida. Yet, by the time Matthew goes “live” on our news screens it is already too late to act. The window of opportunity is gone, and even emergency personnel must wait until it is safe to respond. The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), however, has been closely monitoring this storm long before it became  “Hurricane Matthew” to us. Charged with protecting life and property, NWS forecasters all over the East Coast were anxiously (and excitedly!) poring over the model forecasts and other weather guidance from the National Hurricane Center, deliberating over the uncertainty of the storm’s path and pondering how and when it was going to affect their area of forecasting responsibility. Remarkably, despite the great excitement and responsibility involved, the demeanor of the entire agency through it all has been calm, measured, and deliberate.

We may take it for granted, but “speaking with one voice” represents a great sociotechnical achievement – at the NWS as well as anywhere else. As I discuss in my book, the NWS has cultivated sets of temporally judicious decision-making habits in its forecasters both by promoting expeditious meteorological skills and rules of thumb and by scaffolding the temporal architecture of a given task onto more or less fixed deliberation structures and technologically hardwired timing sequences. Specifically as it pertains to hurricane operations, NWS forecasters must abide by the storm tracks charted by the Hurricane Center and, in fact, cannot publicly divulge any information prior its official release to ensure “the issuance of information to all users at the same time on an equal basis.” As I had occasion to witness first hand, however, NWS forecasters don’t always agree with the  pronouncements of the Hurricane Center, or of each other for that matter. And so, Hurricane Center forecasts/warnings are issued one hour before NWS field offices are to issue local hurricane advisories and warnings. This hour is the window of opportunity during which NWS forecasters will deliberate (via prescheduled conference calls and (ad hoc) chat room discussions) with the Hurricane Center as well as neighboring field offices about possible local amendments to the intensity/timing/track of the storm. Local expertise (in microclimatic conditions as well as community needs) is considered an asset at the NWS, militating for the existence of field offices in the first place. But eagerness to save the day and “nail the storm” can lead to flip-flopping, over/underwarning, or even bouts of indecision. It is especially for those fateful moments, when successfully utilizing windows of opportunity becomes paramount, that the NWS has sought to mold time into an organizational resource and forecasters into poised decision makers.

When it comes to windows of opportunity, however, one size doesn’t fit all. Different time horizons call for different infrastructural regimes of decision-making action. Here I have only touched upon hurricanes, which are “long-fused” events. Forecasting tornadoes, or some such “short-fused” event, presents entirely different windows of opportunity. Predictably, therefore, NWS infrastructures during fast-paced scenarios call forth a set of skills and resources best suited for keeping up with the action, whereas slow-paced scenarios come bundled with an equivalent set of skills and resources, meant to elicit good long-endurance performance. In the end, time makes a fool of us all, of course; but, in the meantime, we might as well devise ways to turn it into our best ally.  

“Masters of Uncertainty”

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Phaedra Daipha’s recent (20105) book Masters of Uncertainty: Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth (University of Chicago Press) is worth picking-up, if only to appreciate and better understand the odd practice-world of weather forecasting inhabited by individuals whose weather predictions feature so prominently in local and national news, and, also, because frequently their prognostications shape the timings of our daily comings and goings (especially when we trust them too much or too little). Here is an interview with Daipha to give you a hint of what’s in store for the book.

For social theory buffs, and especially for sociologists trained in organizational studies, cultural studies, and science and technology studies (like I was), this is a real treat. The bibliography is packed with the usual suspects: everything from heaps of Abbott, Fligstein, Barley, and Gieryn to Latour, Goffman, Giddens, and March, without forgetting Orlikowski, Perrow, Weick, and Vaughan. And there are many more I could gladly highlight.

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Teaching Paradigms

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Like anybody actively teaching STS, I imagine that you too reach back to teach a little of Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsWell, among the many other lessons about “normal science” relevant to students (periods of shared vision regarding what constitutes a “legitimate” scientific question, general consensus about “proper” methodological techniques, etc), how “anomalies” mount under the conditions of normal science until eventually scientists come to the realization that these “errors” or “unaccounted for findings” were a kind of data in themselves, and then, of course, all the insights about how entrenched scientists protect their privileged positions as purveyors of truth as more recently trained scientists make new, unorthodox, or counter-intuitive claims (in search of achieving their own legitimacy and recognition.

I have two examples to use in the classroom: one that I’ve used for years, and another I only learned about today (thanks Alexander Stingl).

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Re-Using Nuclear Sites

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Logging and nudist colonies

It is an admittedly odd juxtaposition, but these two ideas landed on my desk this week. 

First, in an example of public participation in inquiry,Chornobyl’s urban explorers find evidence of logging inside exclusion zone” — logging glow sticks in the “zone of alienation” (thanks dmf). A group of “stockers” roams the zone of alienation and monitor it, and they have found some interesting things in their somewhat odd form of tourism. “The first time we saw forests and the second time it wasn’t there,” says Kalmykov. Chernobyl is having a birthday.

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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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