Another Way of Looking at the Blackouts

I've mentioned several times the ESRI company of Redlands, California, which was founded and is still run by a family friend, Jack Dangermond, and which specializes in "geographic information systems." Essentially these are ways of layering economic, demographic, political, public health, transportation and other data over zoomable maps.

Yesterday ESRI put out a map plotting major electric-power outages after last week's storm over indicators of "social vulnerability," which they define thus: 

Social vulnerability refers to potential exposure due to population and housing characteristics: age, low income, disability, home value or other factors. For example, low-income seniors may not have access to a car to simply drive away from an ongoing hazard such as a flood.

To me the map is interesting both for showing the path of the storm (damage indicated by the blue dots) and also for the "social vulnerability" shading -- darker colors indicating worse problems.


While we're on the "what we've learned from the storm" front, a few more installments. One reader writes, in response to an earlier report that Germany's roads seem less beat-up in the winter than ours do:
I'm reminded of something I learned in "The Boys' Book of Locomotives", a very nice book published in 1907 that I found in a used book store, to the effect that American finished track was roughly at the same level of quality as temporary track that the British laid down during construction.  To cope with this we invented a bunch of undercarriage designs aimed at stabilizing a train running on crummy track.

This is a personal impression without any real evidence behind it, but it seems to me that it's always been a hallmark of American industry to build things cheap and fast and then to move on to the next thing.  Sometimes that's an advantage, sometimes it isn't.
And, from someone who has spent a lot of time outside the US:
Regarding the comments on the sorry state of infrastructure in America compared to the rest of the industrialized world:  it has been apparent for many years now, the question is why Americans keep tolerating that. It can't be because they are against modernizing roads and airports or repairing bridges. Could it be that too many Americans are just not aware of, or want to believe, the facts (especially when reported by the hated "liberal media")? They have been told, for the longest time, that they are exceptional and that their country is greatest in the history of mankind. No wonder so many of them still believe America has the best health care system in the world!  
This is too big a topic to wrestle fully with right now. In some ways, America is much richer and stronger relative to the rest of the world than most people think. But in lots of aspects, to a degree that many Americans really have a hard time imagining, the U.S. has become a backward place. (Roads are bad; cell phone coverage is really bad; internet access is slow compared with Japan or Korea; health-care system is a PITA.) We love complaining about things that don't work here and giving speeches about America falling behind. But that Europeans or Asians might think we're backward ... it's hard really to take in. As another reader writes:
I've been in the southern Tirol with family on holiday. I was last here forty five years ago when it was a much poorer place than it is now. Whenever I travel to Europe I can't help but see that the people I encounter seem better housed, better dressed and better fed than their counterparts in the U.S. The infrastructure seems in much better repair. Many of the roads  where I live (think route 22 in New York State) look like they were recently strafed. When I left a few weeks ago the road through Queens to JFK looked a tad  third worldish.

My granddaughter had a medical emergency a week ago and had to spend a night in the hospital where she was treated very well. The only charge was sixty euros for the ambulance- about the cost of a cab. Back in New York a dear friend had a serious fall in her home a month ago and spent the next thirty hours in the emergency room at Lenox Hill and she is a wealthy woman.

Our politicians should get their heads out of their American asses once in a while.
On the "why not?" principle, here is a National Weather Service map of where last week's storms hit.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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