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Some Good News From the Tech World
Three innovations that can help.
Before we get back into the Slough of Despond known as politics and media, here are a few positive tech-related developments. These are connected only by being interesting (to me) and deserving wider notice. They all involve people you probably haven’t heard of.
1) ‘Designing Restoration,’ by Beck Tench.
For years I have followed the videos and tech tutorials of a University of Washington data scientist named Beck Tench. She has chosen as her Twitter ID @10ch. (Sound it out.) I first came across her work through presentations like this one, which explores the ideas-organizing software I’ve relied on for the past 15 years, Tinderbox.
This month Tench presented her dissertation as a PhD candidate at the University of Washington. (She succeeded; congrats!) The presentation is recorded as a YouTube video below; you can scroll through the full text-and-images version here. This is the video:
You’ll see that her presentation, on “Designing Restoration” has two central and connected themes, both directly relevant to our public predicaments.
—One is attention, and how it can be preserved, defended, and improved in our constant-distraction age.
—The other is participation, and what it means, in very specific terms, to involve people in the design of structures, organizations, and programs that will affect them.
Over our years of travels around the country, Deb Fallows and I have written many times about communities that have found genuine, practical-minded ways to define and work toward the goals that most residents of an area share, even if they disagree about national politics. Deb described an example this summer, from Mount Blanchard, Ohio.
The processes that have impressed us most are not conceptual sessions with titles like “Discussions Across the Divide.” Rather they are directed toward tangible ends. What do we like about our community? What is wrong with it? What is the most important next thing to do with our limited funds?
Obviously questions like these will have different answers from different people and interest-groups. Rich and poor, old and young, powerful and powerless, on down the list. But Deb’s recent piece from Ohio, like one last year from Maine, explains that there are techniques to make this process more successful. I wrote in The Washington Monthly about some of these techniques as applied in Muncie, Indiana, and I have an upcoming Monthly piece about examples from two other towns.
The specificity and detail of “Designing Restoration” have a similar how-to emphasis. When you have the time, the presentation deserves your attention. And check out Tench’s downloadable “Field Guide” on how the process can work in public libraries.
2) Leaded ‘AvGas’ is finally on its way out.
I’ve meant to post about this for weeks, but better late than never.
“Better late than never” could also apply to the news itself: Finally, after decades of delay, small airplanes will begin the switch away from leaded gasoline as a fuel.
—If you’ve ever been to a small airport, you’ve seen fuel tanks labeled for two different products. One will say “Jet A.” This is essentially kerosene and is the fuel for the turbine engines that power jets and turbo-prop planes.
—The other will say “AvGas” or “100LL.” AvGas is short for Aviation Gasoline, and 100LL is short for “100 Low Lead,” a misleading name. This is the 100-octane, high-performance fuel that piston-powered engines burn. Most of the small propeller planes you see are piston-powered, including the Cirrus model I fly.
Despite being called “Low Lead,” 100LL includes the tetraethyl lead (TEL) additive that was banned in U.S. automotive fuel a generation ago. Small plane emissions are the major remaining source of toxic airborne lead. Delay in addressing this threat has been one of the major failures of the industry. (And why do airplane makers still want to use lead? Because it reduces “knock,” or uneven combustion, which matters more for planes in the air than for cars on the ground.)
This is an aviation story, and a public-health and environmental story. But it is also a fascinating case study of innovation, and engineering, and perseverance, and the interaction of public and private policies. If you check out the podcasts or interviews listed here, featuring GAMI’s co-founder, George Braly, I think you will see what I mean.
Or you can watch the discussion between Braly and my friend Warren Morningstar, of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, below. Braly starts out by saying, “In the immortal words of one famous politician whispering into the ear of another, It’s a really BFD.”
Of course any sustainable future for aviation will involve new sustainable fuels, and battery power, and substitutes for travel, and much more. But GAMI demonstrates technological innovation from a small company in a small town that can amount to a BFD.
3) The vaccination story you haven’t heard.
We’ve all read stories about public or private efforts that failed. All of us who are reporters have written them. They matter. They’re a crucial part of our job.
We’ve read (and written) fewer stories about efforts that work—or to be more precise, successes that involve team efforts rather than centering on a hero-inventor.
A new story by Patrick McKenzie, in Works in Progress, is a book-length first-person account of how the troubled U.S. Covid-vaccination effort became more successful than it would otherwise have been.
You’ll really need attention for this one. It’s more than 25,000 words long. An early sample:
In January 2021, a ragtag group of technologists spun up a volunteer effort to fix some of these issues with the rollout, beginning with the State of California’s lack of a website listing where one could get vaccinated. Within months they created and operated the shadow data infrastructure for the US vaccination effort. This infrastructure quietly bridged public and private sector response efforts, made the vaccine Googleable, and directly enabled healthcare providers to save many thousands of lives.
This is our story. It’s a window into an undercovered facet of the overall pandemic response effort. It’s a tale of startup-infused derring-do and frequent institutional failure. I hope that we as a society can learn from it to inform our rapid-response efforts in the future.
The editors of Works in Progress add an Editor’s Note: “This is a very long essay, but we promise it’s worth it.”
They are right.
And while I’m at it: check out this report by Andrew Chamings of SF Gate, about San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. A 6,000-acre tract of coastal land will be made into a public park. It reminded me of this even larger scale preservation move in coastal California five years ago this week.
As I’ve chronicled online since the early 1980s, I’ve joyfully invested countless thousands of hours in programs and systems that would purportedly “save time.” Hah! I love them for themselves. Early on, I programmed my own data-base systems, and used the likes of askSam and something that I think was called Knowledge Man. I still miss the MS-DOS program Lotus Agenda. And the sublime outliner Grandview. I have loved as well the Windows program Zoot, which I wrote about 25 years ago. Recently Tinderbox. I am leaving out some but thinking of them all.