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Archive for August, 2007

Last week I took a complete, cold-turkey technology break and headed up into the Minnesota-Canada Boundary Waters via canoe, in the able company of my dear wife Mary and my youngest daughter Sarah. No email, no phone calls, no checking the weather radar — just the old standby maps and compass. Well, OK, I did have the phone along, just (strictly in the Interests of Science) to see if I ever DID have any cell coverage anywhere (yes, analog coverage at Phoebe lake, on a hill), and I did sneak a peek at my GPS, but never to navigate. But other than that, it was just us, the water, and the sky. If you’ve been there, we put in at Kawishiwi Lake and then following the lady chain through Polly, Phoebe, and numerous others, ending up back at Sawbill Lake and Sawbill Outfitters.

And it was wonderful. Takes about a day, but suddenly you re-connect with your ability to focus directly on the here-and-now in front of you. Absent street lights and high-efficiency florescent lamps, you are forced into the rhythms of the environment: waking by daylight, turning in at dark — there was a total burning ban, so no campfires to keep you up. You take it as it comes, sun, drizzle, wind, calm, waves, beaver dams . . . they’re just there and so it goes.

But were we without technology, actually? No birchbark canoe, not even our old Grumman ironboat, we rented a vacuum-bagged Kevlar Wenonah that for a 20-foot boat weighed only 49 pounds, a real blessing on the portages. We had a mix of packs, including traditional Duluth packs and a similar pack by Granite Gear, but inside them were high-strength polyethylene bag liners. And we had a pump-style water filtration unit to remove bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. I had a new flashlight with an LED instead of an incandescent bulb. We even had along a bent-shaft paddle, optimized for efficiency through experience at the Olympic Games.

So maybe it was only the communication technology that we eschewed. Technology that is there to enable us to socialize with others, but in trade for this also puts us at the mercy of them: to interrupt us, to demand our attention, to point out a problem and solicit our solution, to unceremoniously and at the touch of a button yank us out of our canoe and drop us into a conference room somewhere. So, maybe getting away from all that allows us to recapture our own time and attention, just for us our own selves!

So we slid across lakes and through small rivers, around seemingly magic bends and past islands into invisible bays, and while each vista was unique they were also all the same — rocks to the waterline, trees that seem to make a solid wall behind the shores, and always the water. The water that carried the voyageurs, that carried the canoes of the Ojibwe, the Huron, and the Cree, that carried casual travelers before us, now carries us equally well. More than our canoe, it carries our spirits as deeply into the calm-giving wilderness as we dare to let it take them.

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This post ought to be titled, “The Engineers Were Right, and the Politicians are Spineless Invertebrates,” but then people would complain that I’m just whining and casting stones because I’m an engineer. Well, I’m casting stones, but no whine here — I’m really frosted about this. I’ve driven that bridge too many times to be satisfied with the “buck stops somewhere else, we are not responsible” mentality of not only the Pawlenty administration, but many of the ones that preceded it, and not only here in Minnesota, and Louisiana, but lots of other places too. It’s glamorous and fun to build, but just dull and boring to maintain, and maintenance costs money that no one sees.

So in the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis we see a slight miscalculation of a “no taxes” administration and it’s “we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem” Commissioner of Transportation. Although with gross dishonesty they’ve stated “money was never an issue,” that’s patent drivel. Money was, and is, all of the problem in the precipitous decline of our national infrastructure.

It’s also blatant dishonesty to say, as the Pawlenty / Molnau administration has done, that “we had no warning, we were never told!” Just like Bush at New Orleans, they are all surprised by this sudden problem, which they thought they had pushed off safely into the future. This in spite of constant warnings from engineers about the Levees in New Orleans, or the progressive structural problems in the 35W bridge (and other similar bridges in Minnesota, of this and other designs), they are surprised, and yet not to blame! Their own engineers complained for 15 years about the poor condition of the bridge, but if stalling action saved money today, the Pawlenty administration did it so they could say, “we held the taxes down.” They hoped, apparently, that the bill for this neglect would come due in someone else’s administration.

The Transportation Commissioner piously notes that “we have a maintenance plan, within the resources we have available,” while the Governor vetoes gas-tax increases targeted at road repair, that would have provided these resources. QED! We have no problem!

But the chief tax-cutting think-tank, the Taxpayer’s League, now tut-tuts and says “lets not start the blame game,” but so help me there IS blame here, blame laid at the doorstep of the last several Transportation Commissioners, and the Governor, and the layers of faceless bureaucrat-managers who watered down the straight talk in the engineers’ and bridge-inspectors’ reports into the relaxed pablum that let these people — spineless politicians all — look aside and hence “be surprised” when the bridge fell.

Make no mistake, we are consuming our civil infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams, power lines, parks, public buildings, pipelines, the air-traffic control system, and more — as if it were endless and as if we had no responsibility for it at all. We’re consuming it because we don’t have the courage to tax ourselves to repair what we have inherited from our forebears. It’s that simple.

There are more buzzards coming home to roost, mark my words. We spend money without end in Iraq to combat our enemies the terrorists, but for maintenance of our domestic infrastructure, to quote Pogo the Possum, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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