Category: Editorial


Posted by – December 4, 2016

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) assessed sixteen categories of infrastructure ranging from airports to wastewater treatment plants and gave the U.S a D+ grade for its $3.6 trillion of overdue maintenance and a pressing need for modernization. ASCE notes that America’s cumulative GPA for infrastructure rose slightly to a D+ in 2013, ranging from a high of B- for solid waste to a low of D- for inland waterways and levees. Solid waste, drinking water, wastewater, roads, and bridges all saw incremental improvements, and rail jumped from a C- to a C+. WaPo’s Graphics Reporter Tim Meko recently summarized the issue with a series of maps and links that are required reading to inform the current political discussion and protests over U.S. infrastructure needs. This includes the below map of the location and status of U.S. bridges, many of which are deemed as “structurally deficient” (in red):

The Federal Highway Administration says the nation’s 607,380 bridges are on average 42 years old and require $20.5 billion annually by 2028 to eliminate the backlog of repairs and replacements (only $12.8 billion is being spent currently).

A good time to be an engineer!


Mapping Why I Will Be Late to Work for the Next Year

Posted by – June 5, 2016

After decades of neglect, the Washington DC Metro system will begin a year-long surge in track maintenance on Monday, starting with two weeks of work on the Orange Line that will reduce service on my daily commute from Vienna by 70 percent:

This surge of repairs to the nation’s second-busiest mass transport system is in response to a growing series of service delays, track failures, and electrical fires culminating in last year’s death of a commuter trapped in a tunnel on a smoke-filled train. General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld ordered the maintenance surge along with changes to the system’s budget, culture, and management in an effort to improve safety and reliability.

As well as making commuting a challenge for the 6 million residents of the Washington DC region, it will be something of a social experiment. Commuters may choose to work from home on their companies’ or agencies’ VPNs or email, but mine gets overloaded when Federal offices are closed on snow days and it’s impossible to work on classified systems outside of the office; how will that change the pace and content of work, office culture, and family life? Metro users may get up earlier and arrive home later, or shift to other modes of transport; will this result in massive traffic jams, increased air pollution, more accidents, and a boom for bicycle shops?

The Washington Post’s SafeTrack web site provides further analysis and graphics, and the Washington Metro Transit Authority’s website is a good source for up-to the minute reports. I’d also recommend the outstanding free app DC Metro and Bus by DixonMobility (iOS and Android) to tell you when you’ll get to squeeze onto that next train…


World’s Most Accurate Pie Chart

Posted by – September 1, 2015

I am not a fan of pie charts, which to me add no understanding, but this is one that works:
Via I F**king Love Science, with thanks to Ed for the tip!

For Some, the Tribe is More Important Than the Truth

Posted by – February 22, 2015

There are large differences between how scientists and the public perceive evolution, climate change, vaccination, and more. I have usually attributed this to scientists’ failure to communicate as much as the public’s misunderstanding, but Joel Achenbach’s recent WaPo editorial suggests the real reason is that people tend to choose positions that best align with their social group, regardless of scientific evidence. Achenbach cites a research paper by Dan Kahan, whose abstract states:

Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. An empirical study found no support for this position. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

Or, as former USGS head and current editor of the journal Science, Marcia McNutt, put it, it’s as if:

We’ve never left high school. People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science.

This suggests that, in addition to stating the evidence, scientists might also try pointing out how fellow group members accept the conclusions of scientific research – e.g., noting that Pope Francis has no problem with evolution.


Bitter Christmas

Posted by – December 20, 2014

The HappyPlace blog at eCards provides the Christmas Graphic for 2014:

Just Who is This Guy?

And remember: always leave cookies out for the stoned burgler; the crumbs provide DNA evidence. Want more? Well, here are xAnalytica’s Christmas Graphics from previous years:

Happy Holidays!


Data the Best Preparation for Disasters?

Posted by – October 14, 2014

At a recent GovTech forum in Los Angeles, experts from the USGS, academia, and industry assessed that open data and analytics have become fundamental tools in disaster preparedness – but public officials aren’t using them enough. Citing examples of seismological data, post-Katrina New Orleans, and FEMA’s Disaster Assessment and Assistance Dashboard, the experts illustrated the value of data and analytics to protecting lives and property. They offered that the primary reasons to defer investment in emergency management tools and infrastructure stems from the mistaken beliefs that such expenditures are unjustifiable because they don’t serve immediate needs and large emergencies are infrequent.


Maslow 2.0

Posted by – April 18, 2014

An Internet-era update to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
With thanks to Björn for the tip!


Adams’ Resolutions

Posted by – January 7, 2014

While sorting my priorities for the New Year, I’ve browsed the InterWebs for ideas and found lists of resolutions – some that are profound and others that are less so. To me, the greatest list of resolutions of all time was written by John Adams as he travelled to the Continental Congress in February of 1776, listing the tasks for establishing a new nation as casually as I would list “Lose ten pounds”. Coincidentally, Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, provides what I found to be a useful perspective on New Year’s Resolutions, arguing that one should use knowledge rather than willpower to achieve your annual goals and get some happiness.

Happy New Year, and the best of luck with your list for 2014!


Best Use of a Drone

Posted by – December 28, 2013

In addition to their use by the military and potentially in emergency response, George Zisiadis and Mustafa Khan bring us the Mistletoe Drone, just in time for your New Year’s Eve party:

If you have $300 or so you can make your own romance drone, complete with video streaming (mistletoe is extra). But keep in mind that privately-operated drones are quasi-legal for the present, since the FAA is not expected to issue licenses for private drone operation until 2015.


50 Greatest Innovations?

Posted by – November 1, 2013

James Fallows of the Atlantic consulted with a panel of scientists and historians to select the 50 greatest innovations since the invention of the wheel. The resulting list – and article – is well worth reading and arguing over. Personally, I’d nominate the longbow or capitalism, as I can’t imagine history without these, but I can easily imagine history without Air Conditioning (44), even in Houston. The full article is available online, where you can also register your picks. Ordered from most to least, as ranked by the Atlantic’s panel of experts:

1. The printing press, 1430’s
2. Electricity, late 19th century
3. Penicillin, 1928
4. Semiconductor electronics, mid-20th century
5. Optical lenses, 13th century
6. Paper, second century
7. The internal combustion engine, late 19th century
8. Vaccination, 1796
9. The Internet, 1960s
10. The steam engine, 1712
11. Nitrogen fixation, 1918
12. Sanitation systems, mid-19th century
13. Refrigeration, 1850s
14. Gunpowder, 10th century
15. The airplane, 1903
16. The personal computer, 1970s
17. The compass, 12th century
18. The automobile, late 19th century
19. Industrial steelmaking, 1850s
20. The pill, 1960
21. Nuclear fission, 1939
22. The green revolution, mid-20th century
23. The sextant, 1757
24. The telephone, 1876
25. Alphabetization, first millennium b.c.
26. The telegraph, 1837
27. The mechanized clock, 15th century
28. Radio, 1906
29. Photography, early 19th century
30. The moldboard plow, 18th century
31. Archimedes’ screw, third century b.c.
32. The cotton gin, 1793
33. Pasteurization, 1863
34. The Gregorian calendar, 1582
35. Oil refining, mid-19th century
36. The steam turbine, 1884
37. Cement, first millennium b.c.
38. Scientific plant breeding, 1920s
39. Oil drilling, 1859
40. The sailboat, fourth millennium b.c.
41. Rocketry, 1926
42. Paper money, 11th century
43. The abacus, third millennium b.c.
44. Air-conditioning, 1902
45. Television, early 20th century
46. Anesthesia, 1846
47. The nail, second millennium b.c.
48. The lever, third millennium b.c.
49. The assembly line, 1913
50. The combine harvester, 1930s