Book: Infrastructure by Brian Hayes

Fascinating guide to the industrial landscape

Brian Hayes
Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape
W. W. Norton, 2005
ISBN: 978-0393329599
506 pages (main text)

Back when it was published in 1996 I read Neal Stephenson's cool article for Wired magazine "Mother Earth Mother Board" about the laying of a trans-Pacific cable. He referred to his adventure in researching the article as "hacker tourism" (using the original and, to my mind, still correct meaning of "hacker"). Brian Hayes's book Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape is very much up that fascinating alley.

But I'm a geek and so it's natural that I'd think that Infrastructure is a terrific book. It's modeled after nature guides, with splendid photos and detailed descriptions. But instead of being about dull plants and birds, it's about the manufactured parts of our landscape: airports, bridges, telephone poles, and the like. Infrastructure may not be as fascinating to someone who isn't a geek, but it should be hard for anyone not to admire the book's scope and depth.

The book's chapters are on: mining, drinking water provision and waste-water removal, farming, oil and gas, electricity generation, electricity distribution, communication, highways, railroads, bridges and tunnels, aviation, shipping, and waste and recycling. Each of those subjects is covered in considerable detail. There's also an afterword on the post-industrial landscape in which Mr Hayes tries and, I think, succeeds in finding a deeper meaning for the book than just a collection of really cool explanations. There's also a section of suggested further reading.

Infrastructure is designed like a nature guide. But it's not exactly a "field guide" as the subtitle suggests it is. It weighs around four pounds and my softcover edition is rather floppy. That doesn't bother me since I was content to read it at home and if the publisher made the pages any smaller they would have to make the many attractive and illuminating photos smaller.

For reasons that I don't know, the subtitle on the cover of my edition is "The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape". The subtitle on the title page, the half-title, and in the cataloging-in-publication data is as above. Perhaps the publisher got complaints from people who tried to carry the hardcover edition around and hurt themselves.

In an effort to appeal to non-geeks, Mr Hayes says in the preface:

    My hope is that this book will cultivate greater awareness
    of all the miscellaneous hardware that goes into making
    a civilization, and perhaps even some enthusiasm for the
    industrial landscape. It's all around you. You might as well
    get to know what it's called and what it does. If you would
    pull off the highway to admire a mountain vista or a
    waterfall, you might also consider pausing for a mine or a
    power plant.

    Welcome to the world we have made for ourselves.
    (pp. 5-6)

I'm not sure how successful Mr Hayes's appeal is, but I think it's very sensible. It makes sense to me understand the world we have made for ourselves at least as much as it makes sense to understand the natural world.

Mr Hayes's prose is clear and workmanlike and his explanations are friendly and engaging, never pedantic or condescending. For example, in beginning an explanation of an electrical substation, he says:

    If you look closer, you will find that there is a logic to this
    melange of equipment. You can make sense of it. The
    substation has inputs and outputs, and with a little study
    you can trace the pathways between them.
    (p. 248)

As for what's explained, I lost track of the number of times I thought to myself, "So that's why that's the way it is" and "What an interesting solution to that problem". But the book also has any number of interesting historical tidbits in it. For example:

    On 57th Street in New York, among the art galleries and
    boutiques, there is a basement room where for many years
    large electric motors took in 60-hertz current and turned
    dynamos to generate 25-hertz power for the trains of the
    New Haven line running out of Grand Central Terminal.
    The machinery is idle now; all the trains have finally been
    converted to 60 hertz.
    (p. 385)

I wonder how many times I walked past that electrical station, not knowing that it was there, and how many times I rode those trains while it was powering them.

All explanations bring up other possible questions and there were a few times that I wished that Mr Hayes had continued an explanation a bit longer. But that would be true of any similar book and so I can't fault this one for not proceeding much past 500 pages. Equally, the book is a bit U.S.-centric. But Mr Hayes has gone to a ridiculous number of out-of-the-way places to learn things and photograph them for this book. So I can't reasonably complain that the non-U. S. examples are mostly from a few places in Europe. A few sub-sections of the book felt a trifle rushed, but that's a trivial complaint.

On subjects that I'm familiar with to some extent (communication and aviation), Mr Hayes is very good but not quite perfect. I noticed only one significant error. In the chapter on aviation he says, "Although jet airplanes have thrust reversers, they are used only to slow the airplane right after touchdown; they can't be used as a reverse gear for backing out of a parking place" (p. 429). Thrust reversers actually can be used to do just that, it's just that they very rarely are. The reason for that is that in a confined space such as at a gate, running most planes' engines with reversers deployed would stir up a lot of grit and dirt from the ground, much of which would be sucked into the engines' intakes. Foreign-object damage to the engines (called FOD) would likely be the result. (If the area weren't confined, the pilot could just taxi forward.) But some planes, such as DC-9s, have engines that are mounted well above the ground and well back from where the dirt is likely to be stirred up. Some airlines routinely have such planes back away from some gates with their reversers. The term for doing that is a "powerback" in contrast to a pushback, which is what a plane gets from a tug.

It also appears that "A-320" (p. 431) is a typo since the A-320 isn't classed as a "heavy" aircraft (that is, one having a maximum takeoff weight of 300,000 pounds or more). I expect that Mr Hayes meant "A-330".

It turns out that there are a few other small errors which Mr Hayes admirably documents on the book's excellent website.

Given the remarkable breadth of the book and the detail that Mr Hayes goes into, being nearly perfect is a very considerable achievement. Infrastructure fulfills its promise especially well.

Posted: Fri - August 10, 2007 at 08:27 PM   Main   Category: