Monthly Archives: August 2017

The passion of infrastructure


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Infrastructure is something that most of us seem to either look down on, ignore, or not even know too much about.   The lights go on, water flows, the bridges stay up, the Internet keeps bubbling away with cat videos, and all in all, our complex life seems to effortlessly move along… until it doesn’t.  If you are in the Houston, Texas region right now, you may be getting a graduate level degree in How Infrastructure Is Important.

For those of you who have done any camping, sailing, or roughed it in the field in the military, you know of this intimately, of course.   A single tarp in a rainstorm; access to clean water, access to good food, lighting at night, and a warm dry place to sleep aren’t trivial in those scenarios.  But then we go back to our ‘normal’ lives, and the infrastructure fades into the background quickly.

Infrastructure also covers things like organization, safety, backup plans, and a myriad of other ho-hum stuff.  This all may be a bit dry and or unexciting to people, but for those who think ahead, infrastructure is what makes or breaks a society.

When reading about things that go in a crisis, this jumped out at me:

Living near a well with a manual pump is like being in Eden.

Likewise, this tidbit:

…when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and asked for an assessment of the risks and threats that the city might face, he learned that a collapse in the water supply system was at or near the top of the list.

If you really want to be awed by how much infrastructure it takes to get water into a major city like New York, check out the story of Water Tunnel No. 3, and some of the engineering that went into it.  The pictures of what has been built hundreds of feet below the surface of NYC are quite eye-opening.

Some of us are natural infrastructure folks; we organize, plan, backup, reinforce, check – all because we know, deep down, that those things are what make our comfortable lives possible.   These things can stop at any time; however, their upkeep can require lots of money, much of which can’t be seen (until of course, something goes wrong).

It isn’t easy to think every day about hot water flowing,  how food got to a grocery store, the lights going on, or making a cellular phone call, and all the background processes that make those things possible.    Perhaps in becoming more cognizant of these things, we might be able to understand things like climate change, the impossibility of an ever expanding economy and growth on a finite planet, overpopulation, resource depletion, and other large scale, long-time constant predicaments we face.    Infrastructure requires a good deal of resources, and things like bridges and water tunnels have lifespans of one hundred plus years, so perhaps, even though we are a species that has an enormous built-in denial “feature,” it may be that understanding infrastructure could help us reckon with the big D of denial.   We need to be passionate about infrastructure.

Afterthought – regarding war, it has been said,  “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk about logistics.”   That fits in well here.   Perhaps a corollary with regards to people who think about the future is, “amateurs talk technologies, professionals talk about about infrastructure.”


  • To the last point – might people who understand infrastructure have less denial in their lives?
  • How can we get people to be more cognizant of infrastructure, and its costs?
  • Why are some people more concerned with infrastructure, and some with the new and shiny distractions (“look, a squirrel!”)?
  • What do you think is the most important piece of infrastructure?
  • What piece of infrastructure has gotten too complicated to maintained well?
  • Which element of infrastructure is the most resilient?  The most delicate?

That river in Egypt…

A recent Radio EcoShock interview of Ajit Varki on the topic of denial really hit home.   A commenter chimed in with the notion of ‘willful blindness’, discussed by Margaret Heffernan.  This, coupled with the commentary over at Decline of The Empire, for me, puts a few more nails in the coffin regarding our species.

All of these bad traits seem to stem from our biology, and it looks like there is no way out.  Technological solutions won’t work (anything from solar energy to Star Trek-style replicators), because our human nature will take over, and we’ll wind up where we are today.

Now what?

One option, as noted by more than a few folks, is that we’ll just go extinct, as countless other species have done over the billions of years.  The option of survival seems pretty slim; John Michael Greer (now posting at posited a bunch of new species will rise and fall in the next ten billion years, and that seems to be the most likely scenario.

The only other scenario that might be considered is that we do the evolution ourselves, but that would require a good deal of rewiring.  We might not even be the same species; going from homo sapiens to  homo X, where the X is Latin for awareness, conscientiousness, or self-honesty; homo cogitantium; homo honestam (help me out here on the Latin, folks – online translations seem a bit fishy…).


  • Is this possible, or just another wish for a techno-fix?
  • Might the surviving humans in JMG’s story be essentially a new species?   Would those survivors just be “random” survivors (just lucky), or, would they have a “no blindness” gene somewhere down in their core DNA?
  • Can a species achieve the same sort of technological base we have without willful blindness?  Does it even matter?







Crazy week


It’s been an interesting week.   Perhaps even crazy:

Bitcoin surged to new highs; saber rattling between North Korea and the rest of the world got a bit louder; white supremacists (this, in the year 2017!) had a rally where someone died.  The President seemed to take far too long to come out against the violence.   Transgender military folks are suing the President.

Yes, this wasn’t a week of a 9/11-style attack, the start of a shooting war, a natural disaster.   Yet it seems things that might be reported in the Onion not so long ago are seemingly in our regular news feeds and papers.


  • Has the world always been this crazy?   What percentage of news stories do you hear and wonder, “Is this a prank/joke?”
  • What sort of news would, “knock your socks off,” rather than have you yawn and go back to sleep?
  • If you showed the headlines of today to someone thirty years ago, how much would they think was true or not?

Null 4

Nothing much interesting to talk about this week.  Some interesting podcasts to listen to; a list should be made shortly.

Still going through people’s stuff who have passed; it’s amazing how much one person can accumulate.


The Long Now

Last week, a note was made of decaying electronics and things in general.  Nothing seems to last, especially high tech devices.  About the longest pieces of high tech hardware have been running continuously that come to mind are the space probes Voyager 1 and 2 (since the mid seventies).  There might be an old tube radio that still runs (perhaps a century old), or even that strange battery (running since 1840), but nothing so high tech as those probes comes to mind.  There has been some discussion of this in a few places; one interesting discussion is here.

How to design things for a long time is something the ancients did pretty well; the pyramids still stand, and a few aqueducts from Roman times (built with concrete that wasn’t reinforced with iron or steel bars) are operational.  Right now, the Long Now Foundation is building the Clock of the Long Now, designed to run for 10,000 years. It it mostly mechanical, with some ingenious ways of keeping time.

The upshot of all of this is that when (almost wrote ‘if’ there…) civilization does fall, a great deal of infrastructure will start to fall apart, and at some point, we probably won’t be able to do things like make fancy new computers, hard drives, light bulbs, or even LEDs.  Much of our digital information may be lost, unless it is kept on things like the HD-Rosetta , a fascinating piece of storage technology that should be getting a bit more press.

What will be left, are things that have been designed to last.


  • What, in our modern world, has been made to last?  Most civil engineering projects have lifetimes of 100 years, at best.
  • The Clock of the Long Now has a nifty binary mechanism it it; could we build a simple calculator that would be workable for the next 10,000 years, using similar principles?
  • Could any “regular” electronics last for that long?
  • What would you preserve on an HD-Rosetta?
  • What information would we want to last 10,000 years?