Examples of old infrastructure in America

Popular Mechanics has some examples of “the oldest working infrastructure” in American cities:

Water System: Philadelphia Water Department. The City of Brotherly Love has one of the oldest water systems in the United States. While the pipe that broke two weeks ago was built in 1895, the average age of a Philly water line is 78 years, and the wastewater lines average 100 years old, according to the city’s water department. Eighty-seven percent of the more than 3000 miles of water mains are made of cast iron, which was the preferred building material until the 1960s. Drawing water from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, the system supplies 1.5 million Philadelphia residents. The mains are supposed to function properly for 100 to 120 years. The Philadelphia Water Department is still investigating what caused the most recent break…

Concrete Road: Court Avenue, Bellefontaine, Ohio. Using concrete as a road surface was unheard of in the late 1800s, until George Bartholomew pioneered its use by paving Court Ave. in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Bartholomew learned about cement production in Germany and San Antonio, then moved to Bellefontaine because of the neraby deposits of limestone and clay, the two main ingredients in cement. He had to fork over a $5000 bond to convince the city council to let him pave the square around the town’s courthouse, guaranteeing that the concrete would last at least five years. To preserve the historic avenue, Bellefontaine closed the street to traffic in the late 20th century but reopened it because of the traffic and parking problems the closure caused. Court Avenue is still open to light-vehicle traffic, but a statue of Bartholomew at the end of the street keeps trucks off the concrete…

Hydroelectric Power Plant: Mechanicville Hydroelectric Plant. The Mechanicville Power Station sits perched on the Hudson River about 20 miles east of Schenectady. It was built in 1897 to provide power to Schenectady’s burgeoning industry, and today is the oldest three-phase power plant still in operation in the United States. The system uses two three-phase, 40-cycle 32,000-volt circuits, and each of these operates at 6000 kw. These circuits are each capable of handling the station’s entire output, so that service is uninterrupted if one of them goes down. Each of the seven generators runs at 40 Hz and provides 750 kw.

Old infrastructure isn’t necessarily bad if it is well maintained and still meets modern needs. Why, those Romans built aqueducts that have lasted thousands of years – can’t some of our infrastructure do the same? Actually, this brings to mind the David Macaulay book Motel of the Mysteries where a future archeologist discovers a long-lost American hotel room and comes to some interesting interpretations. What exactly will survive from our society?

Who can predict job growth by sector in the next 10 years if the BLS can’t?

Derek Thompson points out that 2002 predictions by the Bureau of Labor Statistics about job growth by sector for the next ten years turned out to be quite wrong:

What did BLS get right? At least two things: the unstoppable growth in health-care jobs (which it expects to continue) and the steady growth in leisure and hospitality.

What did it miss? Everything else, in particular (a) the boom in mining, led by the natural-gas revolution, (b) the utter collapse of the publishing industry, and (c) the Great Recession, which wiped out half-a-decade of economic growth. BLS thought we’d create 20 million non-farm jobs last decade. We created about six million. That’s a 13-million-job gap. 

Essentially, the BLS failed to anticipate the real-world surprises, which is another way of saying it is not psychic. It extrapolated the recent past (health care was expanding, housing was booming, the economy was recovering from a mild recession), baked in global and demographic trends, and voila, put out a plausible projection of the next ten years. This is a perfectly sensible way to predict the future. But then the real world intervened.

This isn’t supposed to be a post about how the BLS forecasting models are bad. It’s supposed to be a post about how predicting the future is impossible, even though predictions play a starring role in discussions about finance and government.

I think Thompson draws the right conclusions here: it isn’t necessarily about jobs but more about the difficulties governments and other organizations have in predicting even ten years into the future. The world is a complex place and this should push us to think about what we can know moving forward. This would be a great point to inject the writings of Nassim Taleb who has argued in several books that this is a huge problem: there are plenty of people, like on Wall Street or in Washington, who think the future is clear enough to risk a lot. Granted, the BLS isn’t going to lose much if their predictions are wrong but it could have a big effect on others. One example: students looking at what majors to select. In recent years, there are more and more articles that talk about the job fields expected to grow in the future. The argument is that students need to make sure they study for employable careers, particularly with rising college costs. But, they may pick a college or a major based on predictions that aren’t necessarily correct. Perhaps this lack of predictive ability is a good argument for liberal arts schools.

Knowing the difficulties of making long-term predictions, what can the average citizen do? Taleb would suggest hedging our bets, perhaps risking some when the negative effects won’t be that bad. (Taleb lays out this investing strategy in Antifragile: put a good amount of money in safe investments and then risk some in places where the payoff could be huge but you aren’t going to lose much if it doesn’t pan out.)

Texas is America’s future?

A libertarian economist argues Texas is a bright spot for America’s future:

Since 2000, 1 million more people have moved to Texas from other states than have left.

As an economist and a libertarian, I have become convinced that whether they know it or not, these migrants are being pushed (and pulled) by the major economic forces that are reshaping the American economy as a whole: the hollowing out of the middle class, the increased costs of living in the U.S.’s established population centers and the resulting search by many Americans for a radically cheaper way to live and do business.

To a lot of Americans, Texas feels like the future. And I would argue that more than any other state, Texas looks like the future as well — offering us a glimpse of what’s to come for the country at large in the decades ahead. America is experiencing ever greater economic inequality and the thinning of its middle class; Texas is already one of our most unequal states. America’s safety net is fraying under the weight of ballooning Social Security and Medicare costs; Texas’ safety net was built frayed. Americans are seeking out a cheaper cost of living and a less regulated climate in which to do business; Texas has that in spades. And did we mention there’s no state income tax?

There’s a bumper sticker sometimes seen around the state that proclaims, I WASN’T BORN IN TEXAS, BUT I GOT HERE AS FAST AS I COULD. As the U.S. heads toward Texas, literally and metaphorically, it’s worth understanding why we’re headed there — both to see the pitfalls ahead and to catch a glimpse of the opportunities that await us if we make the journey in an intelligent fashion.

Joel Kotkin would likely agree. A few thoughts after reading the full story:

1. There are several examples of people moving to Texas from California or the Northeast and finding that they really like Texas. But, the examples tend to emphasize Austin, a city known for plenty of cultural amenities. With its culture, UT-Austin campus, and tech companies, Austin looks like a cool place for the creative class. What about the other major areas in Texas? Why not stories about moving to Houston and Dallas, bigger cities and metropolitan areas with their own industries (oil, etc.)? How representative of Texas is Austin?

2. There is little discussion in the story about Latino residents. The primary focus in on Americans who have moved to Texas from other states but what about the influx of immigrants from Mexico? How are they doing? Are there some differences in their experiences as a whole versus those who are held up as successes in the article?

3. This is another article in a long line of opinions about which American state best represents the country or provides a glimpse into the future. What about California, a more progressive melting pot? What about the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, home to a number of the wealthiest counties in the United States? How about Illinois, held up in a more negative light in recent years for pension woes, too many governments/taxing bodies, bullish politicians, foreclosures, and violent crime? Perhaps we should look to Florida, specifically at the diversity in the Miami area or the aging population throughout the state? I realize people are interested in spotting trends but it is hard to select ideal types from 50 states and hundreds of big cities.

4. The story plays out Texas’ connections to the American pioneer and frontier story. This works but there is also a different culture and set of social norms in Texas. Even if business is thriving and people are moving in, does this necessarily mean many Americans would want to act or live like Texans? Is it all simply about a decent job and affordable housing? Yes, everyone may be American but outsiders and Texans themselves will tell you that the state is a land onto itself.

Saskia Sassen on three possible futures for cities: optimistic, dystopian, articulation

Sociologist Saskia Sassen shares three possible visions for cities in the future:

ArchDaily: What will cities be like in the future?

Saskia Sassen: Well I have two scenarios: a very optimistic one and a very dystopian one. The dystopian scenario is that we will have a lot of private cities. Abuja is de facto a private city. It is how not to be in Lagos in Nigeria. The mechanism is very simple. Everything is super expensive. The milk, the houses, everything. It de facto eliminates all kinds of people. But I think we’re going to take it further. Songdo is sort of a private city. There are now big firms that sell you a city. They will build you a city. And some of them will rent you the city. So that’s the dystopian scenario. That’s the dystopian scenario; in other words we will have vast settlements with probably many toxic conditions, where a lot of people—modest, middle-class people—will be living in slums. In a country like Brazil, many people who are in the civil service of the government live in the slums. Same thing in India. This is contrasted with these brand new perfect cities that aren’t really cities in that full robust sense of the term.

At this end, my utopia is that when so many new people come to cities there is going to be a lot of making—making of sub-economies, not the economy. Making of urban agriculture, making of buildings that work with the environment. People of modest means will use their imaginations; they will understand how to make air circulate so that mosquitos are less likely to come in. They will work and have that knowledge—that is my optimistic scenario. So even a modest, poor slum will have people that know that the shack that they are building is part of larger systems. Then of course, the rich will be the rich and the upper-middle class will be the upper-middle classes. I think the modest middle-classes will keep on splitting up. The splitting up of the middle class has been happening for 25 years. I wrote about it in the late 1980s and people didn’t believe me. They said, “That’s not happening. We’re all becoming richer.” Well, no. Now we know that.

On a larger systemic map about cities, I think that the desirable, optimistic format is multiple articulations of the territory—not one endless metropolitan zone. I think we will have understood that the vast metropolitan area does not work.

The option is articulations. China is building all of these cities so they build nine small cities around Shanghai rather than letting Shanghai become an endless stretch. In my optimistic view, I see a different way of articulating the urban with territory. Moving away from metropolitanization.  Now, my Dutch, practical sense tells me that we’re not going to be able to do that. We’ll build something unmanageable and then the elites will move out and build a new private city.

The three visions: private cities where the wealthy can control everything versus cities where all, or most, people will be able to make things that improve their lives (though the scales of these improvements will likely differ) versus smaller big cities that are more manageable. To some degree, all of these are happening now so its unfortunate Sassen doesn’t go on to explain how these three scenarios might play out and under what conditions.

Something refreshing in this brief analysis: it sounds like Sassen is thinking about cities around the world and not really thinking about American cities. American urban sociology would do well to keep considering the changes to major cities elsewhere in the world…

Social inertia in time use between the 1960s and today

A sociologist who has examined recent time use surveys suggests not much has changed since the 1960s:

John Robinson, a sociology professor from the University of Maryland whose research has focused heavily on Americans’ time use, said the most striking aspect of the latest American Time Use Survey is how closely it resembles similar information from before the 2008 recession — and from as early as the 1960s when time-use surveys first came into being.

The annual Bureau of Labor Statistics publication documents how Americans spend their time. In 2012, employed people worked for about 7.7 hours each day, spent two hours on household chores and took between five and six hours on leisure activities, with close to three of those hours spent plopped in front of the television…

Although today’s Americans spend their time similarly to their counterparts in the decade of discontent, Mr. Robinson noted some important changes in the by-the-minute breakdown. Men and women spend much more equal amounts of time at work, on housework and on leisure activities than they did in the 1960s.

Time spent watching TV has inched upward with every passing year, and although Mr. Robinson expected Internet use to slowly eat into TV time, the Web has yet to take up a large chunk of Americans’ time. The latest survey found men and women both spend less than 30 minutes of leisure time per workday on the computer.

Regardless, both Internet and TV use fall into the same category of activity: sedentary behavior.

This sounds like a good example of persistent social patterns. Without any official guidelines or norms about how people should spend their time, people are living fairly similarly to how they did in the 1960s. If daily life hasn’t changed much, perhaps it is more important to ask people’s perceptions about their time use. Do they feel better today about how they spend their days compared to fifty years ago? These perceptions are shaped by a number of factors, including generational changes where the younger adults of the 1960s are now the older adults of today.

The easier target for analysis: did people in the past expect that the people of the future would spend their time watching TV? I doubt it. At the same time, it suggests television has some staying power as a form of entertainment and information.

Are we closer to the end of the era of the car than the beginning?

One academic argues we are getting closer to the end of automobile era:

This prediction sounds bold primarily for the fact that most of us don’t think about technology – or the history of technology – in century-long increments: “We’re probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning,” says Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “If we’re 100 years into the automobile era, it seems pretty inconceivable that the car as we know it is going to be around for another 100 years.”

Cohen figures that we’re unlikely to maintain the deteriorating Interstate Highway System for the next century, or to perpetuate for generations to come the public policies and subsidies that have supported the car up until now. Sitting in the present, automobiles are so embedded in society that it’s hard to envision any future without them. But no technology – no matter how essential it seems in its own era – is ever permanent. Consider, just to borrow some examples from transportation history, the sailboat, the steamship, the canal system, the carriage, and the streetcar…

“The replacement of the car is probably out there,” Cohen adds. “We just don’t fully recognize it yet.”

In fact, he predicts, it will probably come from China, which would make for an ironic comeuppance by history. The car was largely developed in America to fit the American landscape, with our wide-open spaces and brand-new communities. And then the car was awkwardly grafted onto other places, like dense, old European cities and developing countries. If the car’s replacement comes out of China, it will be designed to fit the particular needs and conditions of China, and then it will spread from there. The result probably won’t work as well in the U.S., Cohen says, in the same way that the car never worked as well in Florence as it did in Detroit.

In our modern world, 100 years is a long time for a technology to hold on. While I imagine there is some technology that would be better than cars, it is harder to imagine the complete overhaul that would have to take place to replace the car. What happens to all of the roads and asphalt? What happens to the garage which has become a more prominent feature of houses? What happens to cities that based their planning around the most efficient pathways for cars? What about the oil industry and auto makers?

Cohen also notes that change could come from China. What if end up in a world where certain countries use a replacement technology for cars because of its efficiency, their larger populations, etc. while wealthier countries like the United States retain their use of the automobile?

Of course, Cohen is correct to note that it is hard to see the future from the present. This may seem like a very silly discussion looking back several decades from now…

The home of the future will be controlled by your smartphone?

A report from CES 2013 suggests the smartphone could unlock the potential of the wired home of the future:

There will be some 24 billion connected devices by 2020. That figure certainly doesn’t seem beyond reach given the number of smartphones out there (300 million shipped in the first half of 2012, according to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs) and the number of connected devices and appliances seen at CES 2013. The theme of LG’s entire booth, for example, was “Touch the Smart Life.” The Korean company had 20,000 square feet of space dedicated to showing people how appliances that can communicate with the web, and one another, will transform their lives for the better. Dozens, if not hundreds, of other booths stretched across the North and South halls of CES showed how this “world of tomorrow” technology is here now, in everything from web-connected TVs to vacuum cleaners…

Your smartphone or tablet is perhaps the best, most capable and feature-filled TV remote control on the market, if you don’t mind that it doesn’t have easily tappable gummy buttons…

For home appliances, a mix of apps and proximity-based technologies like NFC will let you start your washing machine remotely, give you vital stats about what’s going bad inside your fridge and even check on that roast in the oven…

And whether you’re focused on energy efficiency or just want to set the right mood, your smartphone can take the place of light switches and thermostat buttons — and then some.

In my mind, this seems like a shortcut to the wired home of the future promised decades ago. The best way to do this would seem to be to have everything hardwired: lights, security, sound, etc. Of course, this is best done at the construction of the home as it is cost prohibitive later. This goes a different route: every device has to be wired and then controlled by a central hub. Alas, no indication here about the cost for these upgraded home items or what happens if you lose your smartphone.

I see the benefits of some of these devices. On the other hand, some seem quite frivolous. A vacuum cleaner controllable from your phone? Do consumers need a refrigerator that tells them when food is bad as opposed to being able to look through the refrigerator? In the long run, would these devices save time on housework or give a householder more to keep track of? This was the promise decades ago with new appliances but time spent on housework has not been reduced dramatically.


USA Today in an updated version of “the home of the future”

USA Today takes a long look at “the home of the future”:

On Microsoft’s sprawling, rustic campus, this home is a maze of futuristic rooms, a digital kitchen and interactive walls. Recipes are projected onto the kitchen counter, children can play video games from a table’s surface, and bedrooms have interactive wall posters that can be changed daily, based on the occupant’s mood.

No one lives there, but it is a template for the future. Indeed, many houses throughout the USA already have hints of Microsoft’s model home. Might this be a working blueprint for better things, of a life that just decades ago seemed possible only in the world of science fiction?

What once seemed conceivable only on The Jetsons is a real prospect in the next few years. If you’ve heard these utopian and futuristic promises before, only to be disappointed, this story is for you. Because as Americans embrace 2013 and the new year that is upon us, know this: The future of American homes is now.

The rise of intelligent devices, ongoing breakthroughs in robotics, cloud computing and other newfangled technology promise to usher in a new phase in luxuriant and wired home living. Hyperbole of years past has quickly melted away as a pantheon of tech titans — ranging from Apple and Google to Samsung and Microsoft — vie for home-field advantage. Home increasingly is where billions of dollars are expected to be spent on technology as consumers nest in their living rooms and bedrooms on smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles.

I remain skeptical that most Americans will be living in fully wired homes in the near future. In contrast, people with lots of money who can afford new big homes and all of the work that goes into making new homes completely Internet friendly can already do all the article suggests.

It is also intriguing that big tech companies are interested in branding their own homes. Want to live in a Google subdivision? How about an Apple cul-de-sac? Actually, the typical Google or Apple fan would probably rather live in a trendy condo in a New Urbanist neighborhood. Perhaps Microsoft could corner the suburban market…or maybe Samsung?

A mid-twentieth century vision of “the future” versus welcome changes to everyday life for average Americans

Virginia Postrel compares the vision of “the future” decades ago versus the changes that have made the everyday lives of many Americans better:

Forget the big, obvious things like Internet search, GPS, smartphones or molecularly targeted cancer treatments. Compared with the real 21st century, old projections of The Future offered a paucity of fundamentally new technologies. They included no laparoscopic surgery or effective acne treatments or ADHD medications or Lasik or lithotripsy — to name just a few medical advances that don’t significantly affect life expectancy…

Nor was much business innovation evident in those 20th century visions. The glamorous future included no FedEx or Wal- Mart, no Starbucks or Nike or Craigslist — culturally transformative enterprises that use technology but derive their real value from organization and insight. Nobody used shipping containers or optimized supply chains. The manufacturing revolution that began at Toyota never happened. And forget about such complex but quotidian inventions as wickable fabrics or salad in a bag.

The point isn’t that people in the past failed to predict all these innovations. It’s that people in the present take them for granted.

Technologists who lament the “end of the future” are denigrating the decentralized, incremental advances that actually improve everyday life. And they’re promoting a truncated idea of past innovation: economic history with railroads but no department stores, radio but no ready-to-wear apparel, vaccines but no consumer packaged goods, jets but no plastics.

I wonder if another way to categorize this would be to say that many of the changes in recent decades have been more about quality of life, not significantly different way of doing things or viewing the world (outside of the Internet). Quality of life is harder to measure but if we take the long view, the average life of a middle-class American today contains improvements over decades before. Also, is this primarily a history or perspective issue? History tends to be told (and written) by people in charge who often focus on the big people and moments. It is harder to track, understand, and analyze what the “average” person experiences day to day.

I can imagine some might see Postrel’s argument and suggest we are deluded by some of these quality of life improvements and we forget about what we have given up. While some of this might be mythologizing about a golden era that never quite was, it is common to hear such arguments about the Internet and Facebook: it brings new opportunities but fundamentally changes how humans interact with each other and machines (see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle). We now have Amazon and Walmart but have lost any relationships with small business owners and community shops. We may have Starbucks coffee but it may not be good for us.

From the parking meters of Blade Runner to the parking meters of the future

This Observation Deck video tackles the futuristic parking meters in Blade Runner that have come to fruition.

Adam Rogers hints at the end what the parking meters of the future might hold. I’m sure drivers would love to get information on their phones about what spots are available (perhaps for a low app price?). However, I wonder about a world where parking meters are not even needed. With the rise of GPS devices in cars and on car operators (through phones, GPS devices, etc.), couldn’t parking be tracked this way rather than through devices planted in the sidewalk? Imagine a world where you as a driver could pull up to an open spot at the curb and later drive away, all the while paying by a mobile transponder that kept track of the time you spent in that spot.

This also briefly reminds me of the fate of parking meters in many suburban communities. While cities still struggle with how to best raise revenues through parking meters or how to maintain and run the system (like with Chicago’s woes in recent years with the privatization of the parking meters), cheap parking at strip malls, shopping malls, and big box stores effectively killed the parking meter. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon in cities where space is at a premium but the contrast is intriguing.