Illustrating the importance of truck deliveries to American life

A 2012 infographic shows how vital truck delivers are in the United States:

Infographic Trucking Industry Facts

Four quick thoughts:

1. By days two and three, things are getting ugly. No new food? Certain supplies not available? No more gasoline?

2. This highlights the on-demand nature of many of our underlying social systems. We expect to have supplies readily available if needed and do not stockpile much (from food to medicine to fuel).

3. Many fictional apocalyptic tales feature major natural disasters, diseases, or government issues but a much more prosaic reason could cripple the trucking industry. It may not make for a thrilling story but this could be the real way the apocalypse comes quickly.

4. Shouldn’t we consider the trucking industry part of the national infrastructure? We often consider highways and railroad tracks important but the trucking industry itself matters.

What motivates people to document the “urban ruins” of New York City?

There is the glittering New York City, capital of the world, and then there are the urban ruins:

From the creepy to the bizarre, Ellis’ exploration of the derelict and decrepit has lead him to document nearly 50 locations across New York City and beyond. The images chronicle forsaken schools, asylums, and forts, along with railroads and waterfronts. He updates his popular blog constantly, and a collection of 150 images has been published in Abandoned NYC.

Ellis has become somewhat of an expert at discovering the city’s hidden ruins. He gleans a lot of information from other “urban explorers” who post their findings online. He also uses Google Earth — if he sees a building with a collapsed tree outside or what look like abandoned cars, it’s a sure sign no one’s inside. In three years of urban spelunking, he’s somehow avoided being arrested. There are occasional run-ins with security guards, but he usually leaves when they tell him to and that’s that. “Getting in is easier than you think,” he says.

Wired runs stories like these regularly and you can find lots of such pictures online (particularly from Detroit). What is the appeal? My guesses at the moment:

1. It contrasts with the glittering/branded images most cities want to present.

2. It fits in with those interested in darker things like deviant activity (not necessarily illegal, but at least out of the mainstream), horror films, and post-apocalyptic stories. And all of this may be down the block or around the corner in the city! And there are such artistic opportunities!

3. It strikes me that it may be relatively easy to find these sites. Some of the pictures here are from larger sites but some could be from relatively small buildings. It may not be clear from the outside how ruined it looks inside.

4. Perhaps this is some reaction to the orderly middle- to upper-class presentation of the world where everything has to be in its right place. Sites like these present an opportunity to revel in disorder.

5. Humans can survive in such spaces? Again, we are used to seeing the more upscale settings in which the rich and famous live but seeing how the lower half lives may just be more hidden and/or blocked.

6. This is about preserving history. Without such photos, it is easy for buildings to quickly or slowly disappear.

Another post-apocalyptic McMansion dweller on a new TV show

A new Fox show featuring the last man alive has him living in a McMansion:

The former Saturday Night Live performer, creator and star of the new Fox comedy (March 1, 9 p.m. ET/PT), plays a survivor of a virus that decimates the Earth’s population. His character drives across the U.S. looking for people before settling in a McMansion in Tucson.

During filming, he has had the freedom to explore what a lone planetary survivor could do, such as roll bowling balls at aquariums in a parking lot…

Forte (Nebraska), who grew a big, bushy beard for the role, said he thinks many people have wondered about being Earth’s last survivor.

“This idea seems to be, even though it’s very far-fetched, very relatable,” he said. Many people “have heard the question, ‘What would you do if you were the last person on Earth?’ “

And yet this man who could do anything chooses to live in a McMansion? Aren’t these shoddily-constructed and mass-produced homes not going to last very long? I suspect the critique here is that even as the world ends, some of the products of our society that aren’t that great – like McMansions – will live on. A Google image search suggests the character will wander into a sports stadium and an art museum. Here is the one hint I could find of the McMansion-strewn Tucson landscape.

Radio will be saved – by the lack of NSA monitoring, zombie apocalypse

Slate has an interesting set of articles about podcasts but one article notes the persistence of terrestrial radio. Among the reasons given for its ongoing influence includes operating outside of NSA control and zombie apocalypses:

  • Most of us don’t feel the cost of the data we’re using when we stream online content. But this could be changing. “Half the public still has no idea what data metering is,” says Smulyan, “but we find it changes consumption completely when people see what they’re paying for the data they use.”
  • Due to some complex legislation, it can be less onerous to pay artist royalties when you play music over the airwaves than when you send it over the Internet. For this reason, last year Pandora bought an FM station in South Dakota, in an effort to qualify as a terrestrial broadcaster.
  • When the revolution comes, radio will be vital for the propagation of seditious content. It leaves no digital footprints. And the NSA is unlikely to hack into your transistor boom box and track what you listen to.
  • When the zombie apocalypse arrives, radio will save your hide. Anyone with a generator and an antenna can broadcast radio, and everyone listening hears the same key information in real time.

The first two reasons have to do with finances: radio can be relatively cheap for operators and listeners. These are important considerations today: can media conglomerates and music artists still make money?

The last two have some different rationales. Radio can’t be controlled as easily, even with the complex rules regarding licenses and broadcasting though perhaps listeners have even more freedom as they can tune in to what they want (as long as they aren’t recording what they listened to for ratings purposes). In times of disasters – and there is a lower likelihood of facing zombies compared to being in a natural disaster – radio provides an easy way to broadcast and hear information. Does the Internet work well in those situations? The argument here is that the infrastructure for the Internet is more complicated than that for radio, thus, radio will win in times of trouble.

I suspect the second pair of reasons will prove less influential in the long run than the first pair regarding money. But, if money wins out and broadcasting moves to the Internet, might that completely wipe out the presence of radio for the last two purposes?

 

Doomsday prepping in New York City

How do you prepare for the end of the world in the #1 global city, New York City?

These urban doomsday preppers look very different from the stereotype of the rural, gun-toting conservative depicted on shows such as “Doomsday Castle,” Anna Maria Bounds, a sociologist at Queens College, City University of New York, said on Monday (Aug. 18) here at the 109th annual American Sociological Association meeting…

Urban preppers usually don’t own guns, their political views are all over the map, and they are often people of color, Bounds said. Many have seen firsthand, in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, how long it can take for local and federal government agencies to restore order, she said…

One simple step is to make sure the car (if you have one) is always filled with gas and that medical prescriptions are always filled. Urbanites should also look around their apartments and figure out what would work in different emergencies, Bounds said. For instance, is the stove gas or electric? What services would a power outage eliminate?

Another essential for a mass New York exodus is to have a “bug-out” bag ready. This bag is typically a backpack filled with several days’ worth of survival gear that weighs between 20 and 25 pounds (9 to 11 kg). Typical items in a bug-out bag include water filtration systems, food and water, face masks and goggles to protect against airborne hazards, compasses and duct tape. Preppers go on long treks during all seasons to make sure they can carry them for extended periods, Bounds said.

Urbanites should also plan their escape route, which includes knowing how to evacuate a tall apartment building when the power goes out, and how to get out on foot, Bounds said.

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to happen. But, it is a fascinating question: how would you quickly, orderly, and effectively evacuate a major city like New York City? Even planning things like turning both sides of federal Interstates outbound assumes that people own cars and/or there are enough vehicles to evacuate all the people that need to leave.

The irony here is that although New York City (and other major cities) are seen as the places to be because of jobs, culture, exciting neighborhoods, and other features, the preppers assume the last place you would want to be when complex societies break down is in those same cities.

Teaching sociology through the zombie apocalypse

A sociology professor describes how his new class “Impact of the Zombie Apocalypse on the Pacific Northwest” helps him teach sociology theories and concepts:

The zombie apocalypse is the subject of a sociology course I am teaching during winter term at Linfield College in Oregon, and the class is packed. When I tell friends and colleagues, the reaction ranges from “Wow! Nice!” to giving me looks once reserved only for “Underwater Basket Weaving 101” courses taught back in the 1970s…

Sociologically speaking, one of the most fascinating aspects of zombies has been their persistence as “the Other,” something against which we can mirror our fears. Early zombie movies such as White Zombie (1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943) are laced with racial overtones. These morphed into George Romero’s classic critiques of white middle-class fears of black America, to more recent movies that feed off our love-hate relationship with technology and our fear of eco-disasters. While we express anxieties about 9/11 subpopulations, our movies portray zombies that are actually dormant cells, ready to unleash themselves on an unsuspecting populace. Unlike vampires, werewolves, aliens or orcs, zombies present a relatively blank slate against which we can project our fears.

Most sociological theory focuses on the concept of utopia or dystopia. In dystopic societies, people grapple with things that are undesirable or frightening, and they respond to their fears. For many in 21st century America, those fears include capitalism, racism, rapid technological change, urban shifts or even semi-automatic rifles.

The zombie apocalypse class provides a pedagogical tool to spark conversation. In the face of change, how do we survive as a society? How do we maintain group cohesion? In The Walking Dead, survival requires greater brutality and physical strength. In that scenario, how do women avoid being reduced to “women’s work?” And how would nations react to an environmental disaster or apocalypse, as in World War Z? How do zombie-like events influence foreign policy

The class sounds reasonable to me – provided that the class has sufficient sociological content – though I know classes like these tend to draw attention from people who think colleges (and sociologists?) aren’t teaching much (or not teaching the right stuff) in the first place. Using current themes, such as those found in numerous television shows and movies that students are particularly immersed in, is one way to hook students and encourage them to think more deeply about social life. In this case, it seems to me that pushing students to think more about what they would consider an utopia or dystopia could be revealing in how they individualistically approach the world and encourage them to pull back a bit and consider the bigger social forces at work and other people involved. This is a bit tongue in cheek but we don’t have to blow up major cities or have major diseases or creatures to get to this point. Imagine if college students could not have access to their smartphones and computers – imagine at least the short-term apocalypse! But, of course, the world is bigger than just zombies or a loss of cellphones and studying apocalypses may help students see the basics of society that we all tend to take for granted.

Contrarian view: “Why 2012 was the best year ever”

The Spectator argues that 2012 wasn’t so bad when you look at the big picture:

It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind, on page 30, describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.

Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.

The doom-mongers will tell you that we cannot sustain worldwide economic growth without ruining our environment. But while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent. This remarkable (and, again, unreported) achievement has nothing to do with green taxes or wind farms. It is down to consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories.

And so on. It is hard to keep this big picture in mind. Tragedies seem common or at least too frequent. Good news doesn’t seem to trickle up to the top of the news heap as much. Or perhaps it is because our relative status in the United States and elsewhere in the West seems precarious. Or perhaps it is because due to globalization we are also more aware of the risks in the world around us.

This argument reminds of Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (my quick review here). Pinker argued in the book that humans have had a much more violent past and today is marked by relative peace and conflict today tends to be more limited in terms of deaths and how big of an area is affected. Yet, the average citizen would not probably pick up on this.

Before watching The Hobbit on Friday night, my wife and I were struck by the number of movie trailers for post-apocalyptic films. Granted, we didn’t see any trailers for romantic comedies or many Oscar worthy dramas – the theaters clearly think there is a certain audience for The Hobbit – but these sort of narratives seem to be on the rise. People want to watch fictionalized movies and TV shows about the end of times, when the narrative of human progress is clearly smashed and small groups of people try to put the pieces together again. Of course, such movies can also be an excuse for monsters and violence but this is a fascinating trend tied to pessimism about the present and future.