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Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure

“How dare you try to hog all the continent!”*…

The ceremony for the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869 (source)

Historian Richard White on the greed, ineptitude, and economic cost behind the transcontinental railroads of the 19th century, and what that says about the development of infrastructure today…

Politicians love a good historical analogy. That’s why Joe Biden has compared his infrastructure law to the construction of the interstate highway system and the transcontinental railroad. The president, of course, means such comparisons in a flattering light. For those who have studied these revolutionary policy choices, however, the consequences are not so unblemished.

Ten years ago, historian Richard White catalogued the greed and ineptitude of railroad executives and the policymakers who blindly enabled their schemes. In Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he explored the history of corporations that have gone down in American myth as corrupt but ultimately productive and necessary.

White argues that the transcontinental railroad companies were not necessary for stitching the young country together; they were simply an example of “dumb growth” that hurt more than it helped. Sped along by state subsidy and paid-for politicians, these corporations built in places where there were no markets. They never made money. The entire enterprise was a vast Ponzi scheme, and its periodic turmoil threw the nation into repeated economic crisis. Their selfish flailing scourged wildlife, oppressed Native Americans, and spread new settlements to areas where they could not be sustained (and after long suffering were not).

Instead of an all-powerful “octopus” engulfing the country, he saw the railroad men as a collection of myopic and unintelligent executives who could not have survived year to year without government subsidy. Instead of a monstrous kraken, he suggested a better analogy would be “a group of fat men in an Octopus suit fighting over the controls” of a train going off the rails…

Governing (@GOVERNING) talks with White about lessons for today’s infrastructure programs: “Breaking the Myth About America’s ‘Great’ Railroad Expansion.”

See also: “Years of Delays, Billions in Overruns: The Dismal History of Big Infrastructure” “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.”

* Collis Huntington (lead investor in the Central Pacific Railroad) to “Doc” Durant (V.P., and operating head of the Union Pacific Railroad) in 1862

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As we learn from our mistakes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that President James K. Polk, citing “Manifest Destiny” in a State of the Union message, proposed that the United States should aggressively expand into the West.

It was the 22nd anniversary of President James Monroe‘s declaration of the New World as a sphere of influence off-limits to intervention by Old World (colonial) powers, and suggesting that any such incursion would be deemed an act of aggression against the U.S. From 1850, this policy has been known as “the Monroe Doctrine.”

American Progress (1872) by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. (source)

“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline

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As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Of course I’d like to get beyond the concrete. But it’s really difficult. Very difficult.”*…

Felix Salmon is fascinated by concrete…

Greetings from my apartment in the most beautiful Brutalist tower in New York City (sorry not sorry, I.M. Pei.) My bookshelf contains such works as “Concrete,” “Concrete Concept” and “Toward a Concrete Utopia;” on my desk is “Concrete Planet.” Tl;dr: I’m a lover of concrete, not a hater. But… it’s still very problematic. And, as you’re about to find out, much more expensive than architects and contractors might have you believe…

He goes on, in his “Capital” column for Axios, to explain…

Concrete construction no longer lasts thousands of years, like the Pantheon in Rome. Instead, its lifespan is roughly 50-100 years, thanks to the way in which modern concrete is reinforced.

That means a multi-trillion-dollar bill is coming due right around now, in the form of concrete construction that needs noisy, dirty, expensive repair. 

Why it matters: The collapse of a residential tower in Surfside, Florida is a stark reminder of how catastrophically concrete can fail. Just as the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa caused Italy to start paying much more attention to remedial infrastructure projects, the Surfside tragedy might help focus America on the urgent need to fix buildings that are nearing the end of their initial lifespan.

The big picture: As Robert Courland explains in “Concrete Planet,” modern concrete is poured around steel rebar, which gives it tensile strength. But tiny cracks — found in all concrete — cause water to start rusting the steel, which then expands, cracking the concrete. 

Photos of the Surfside basement taken before the collapse show steel rebar breaking all the way through the concrete to the point at which it is fully exposed to the salty and humid Florida air.

By the numbers: One of the most famous concrete buildings in America, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, cost $155,000 to build in 1936 — about $2 million in 2001 dollars. The cost of repairs in 2001 came to $11.5 million.

Similarly, repairs to Wright’s concrete Unity Temple are estimated at roughly 20 times the original construction costs, even after adjusting for inflation. 

How it works: Once rebar starts corroding, the standard fix involves jackhammering the concrete to expose the steel, brushing the steel to remove the rust, reinforcing the rebar as necessary, and then covering it all back up again with carefully color-matched new concrete. 

That labor-intensive extreme noise and dust is actually the green, environmentally sensitive solution. The only alternative is demolition and replacement with an entirely new building — something that involves a much greater carbon footprint.

Between the lines: Because concrete fails from the inside out, damage can be hard to detect. And because concrete looksso solid and impregnable, necessary maintenance is often skipped, causing massive bills later on.

Local governments are in charge of ensuring building safety, but their willingness and ability to do so varies widely. The owners and residents of concrete buildings often try very hard not to think about corrosion, just because the costs of fixing it are so enormous.

The bottom line: The amount of money needed to fix existing infrastructure (nearly all of which is concrete, in one way or another) stands at roughly $6 trillion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That number does not include homes, offices and other private buildings.

If you live in a concrete building that’s more than 40 or 50 years old, it’s an extremely good idea to check carefully on just how well it’s been maintained, lest you find yourself with an unexpected seven-figure repair bill — or worse. 

Go deeper: WLRN’s Danny Rivero clearly explains the collective action problems involved in persuading condo owners to pay for expensive repairs.

The tragedy in Surfside is just one indication that “America’s trillion-dollar concrete bill is coming due,” as @felixsalmon explains.

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As we muse on maintenance, we might spare a thought for Angelo Mangiarotti; he died on this date in 2012. An architect and designer, he made an early career stop in Chicago as a visiting professor for the Illinois Institute of Technology, during which met Frank Lloyd WrightWalter GropiusLudwig Mies van der Rohe and Konrad Wachsmann. While Mangiarotti learned from them an appreciation of materials (perhaps especially concrete) and industrial process for buildings and design production– on both of which he built– he is perhaps best remembered for his insistence, borne out in his work, on “never forgetting the real needs of users.”

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“Investment in infrastructure is a long term requirement for growth and a long term factor that will make growth sustainable”*…

So it’s a problem that infrastructure here in the U.S. is so very expensive. Why is that?

As Congress argues over the size of the infrastructure bill and how to pay for it, very little attention is being devoted to one of the most perplexing problems: Why does it cost so much more to build transportation networks in the US than in the rest of the world? In an interview in early June, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged the problem, but he offered no solutions except the need to study it further.

Biden’s original infrastructure proposal included $621 billion for roads, rail, and bridges. His plan is billed not only as an infrastructure plan but one that would help respond to the climate crisis. A big part of that is making it easier for more Americans to travel by mass transit. The Biden plan noted that “America lags its peers — including Canada, the U.K., and Australia — in the on-time and on-budget delivery of infrastructure,” but that understates the problem.

Not only are these projects inordinately expensive, states and localities are not even attempting to build particularly ambitious projects. The US is the sixth-most expensive country in the world to build rapid-rail transit infrastructure like the New York City Subway, the Washington Metro, or the Chicago “L.” And that’s with the nation often avoiding tunneling projects, which are often the most complicated and expensive parts of any new metro line. According to the Transit Costs Project, the five countries with higher costs than the US “are building projects that are more than 80 percent tunneled … [whereas in the US] only 37 percent of the total track length is tunneled.”

America’s infrastructure cost problem isn’t just confined to transit, it’s also the country’s highways. Research by New York Federal Reserve Bank and Brown University researchers reveals that the cost to construct a “lane mile of interstate increased five-fold” between 1990 and 2008. New construction — widening and building interchanges and building new sections of road altogether — is where the bulk of the problem lies, says one of the researchers, economist Matthew Turner. (The cost of “heavy maintenance” like resurfacing increased as well, but Turner said that’s due almost entirely to the rise in the price of certain paving materials.) 

According to a report by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, the nation’s transit spending “fell by $9.9 billion in inflation-adjusted terms” over the last 10 years. In comparison with similar countries, America spends a relatively small amount of its GDP (1.5 percent) on public infrastructure, while the UK spends 2 percent, France 2.4 percent, and Australia 3.5 percent.

The problem is fundamentally that the US is getting very little for what it builds

Infrastructure: “Why does it cost so much to build things in America?”- this is why the U.S. can’t have nice things. From @JerusalemDemsas in @voxdotcom. Eminently worth reading in full.

Chanda Kochhar

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As we lay the foundation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886– the anniversary of the date in 1864 the Abraham Lincoln set aside Yosemite Valley as a preserve— that Congress recognized and established by law (24 Stat. L.103), the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture.  Created in 1881 by fiat of the then-Commissioner of Agriculture, it’s initial remit was to assess the quality and conditions of forests in the United States.  In 1891, its mandate was expanded to include authorization to withdraw land from the public domain as “forest reserves,” to be managed by the Department of the Interior– the precursor to America’s National Forest and National Park program.

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“Pam, this is from corporate. How many times have I told you that there is a special filing cabinet for things from corporate? Called the waste paper basket!”*…

The subject of this essay emerged by chance. I was researching the history of the U.S. passport, and had spent weeks at the National Archives, struggling through thousands of reels of unindexed microfilm records of 19th-century diplomatic correspondence; then I arrived at the records for 1906. That year, the State Department adopted a numerical filing system. Suddenly, every American diplomatic office began using the same number for passport correspondence, with decimal numbers subdividing issues and cases. Rather than scrolling through microfilm images of bound pages organized chronologically, I could go straight to passport-relevant information that had been gathered in one place.

I soon discovered that I had Elihu Root to thank for making my research easier. A lawyer whose clients included Andrew Carnegie, Root became secretary of state in 1905. But not long after he arrived, the prominent corporate lawyer described himself as “a man trying to conduct the business of a large metropolitan law-firm in the office of a village squire.” The department’s record-keeping practices contributed to his frustration. As was then common in American offices, clerks used press books or copybooks to store incoming and outgoing correspondence in chronologically ordered bound volumes with limited indexing. For Root, the breaking point came when a request for a handful of letters resulted in several bulky volumes appearing on his desk. His response was swift: he demanded that a vertical filing system be adopted; soon the department was using a numerical subject-based filing system housed in filing cabinets.

The shift from bound volumes to filing systems is a milestone in the history of classification; the contemporaneous shift to vertical filing cabinets is a milestone in the history of storage…

It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment…

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored.

The vertical filing cabinet was invented in the United States in the 1890s, and quickly became a fixture throughout North America and around the world. It spread globally because it provided a way to store large amounts of paper so that individual sheets could be retrieved easily. The technique of using drawers for storing a sheet of paper on its long edge was significant because loose papers cannot stand upright on their own. Put another way, the filing cabinet technology enabled loose paper to stand on edge so that more sheets could be stored in less space but still be accessed with minimal difficulty. It allowed loose papers to do the work of paperwork…

The filing cabinet had at least two inventors — and likely several others who remain lost to the historical record. The current accepted version attributes the invention to the Library Bureau, the Boston-based company founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the eponymous decimal system of library classification. Although the Library Bureau would proudly claim the invention, critical developments happened elsewhere. It was the secretary of a charity organization based in Buffalo, New York, a man identified as Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, who provided the initial impetus for construction of a vertical filing cabinet. Inspired by the use of cabinets to store index cards on their edges, Rosenau sought a bigger container for papers.

In 1892, he took his idea to the Library Bureau’s Chicago office, which built a prototype. But no matter the inventor, the turn of the 20th century saw the filing cabinet develop as a part of the rapid growth of an office equipment industry in which dozens of companies manufactured practically identical products with little respect for the hundreds of patents issued for products and parts. To underscore their uniqueness and modernity, this industry explicitly labeled its products “equipment,” “appliances,” and “machines” — not furniture. And it made these products indispensable to offices, and thus helped to constitute the office as a “modern” workspace. The office with a vertical filing cabinet was decidedly not a 19th-century office…

The filing cabinet was critical to the information infrastructure of the 20th-century; like most infrastructure, it was usually overlooked– an oversight that Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson) rectifies: “The Filing Cabinet.”

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Pilot episode)

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As we savor storage, we might spare a thought for Malcolm Purcell McLean; he died on this date in 2001. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

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