A number of years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young friend from Germany turned to me and commented on the potholed and patched streets that surrounded us, as well as the uneven sidewalks and assorted other rough edges.
“It looks like a Third World country here,” he said. “Apparently no one cares.” To him, it was amazing that the wealthy and well-educated residents of Cambridge would tolerate such a poor public environment.
Yet in the U.S. this is more the rule than the exception. Many cities, of course, are in much worse shape than Cambridge.
Last week, Congress approved an emergency stopgap transportation-spending bill, which will give the House and Senate more time to argue over the shape and size of a long-term transportation bill. Although these debates are important, they distract from the reality on the ground, which is that much of our common infrastructure is falling apart from lack of basic maintenance.
Occasional disasters focus attention on the problem -- the near liquidation of New Orleans because of inadequate and poorly maintained levees, or the collapse of a freeway bridge in Minneapolis -- but, in general, the state of disrepair is so common that we simply accept it.
Even getting a handle on the problem is difficult. The American Society of Civil Engineers in its well-known Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gives the U.S. an overall grade of D and says there is a $2.2 trillion deficit -- the amount of money it would take in five years to bring the country’s public works up to acceptable levels. Much of this estimate is for simple maintenance.
Now, asking a bunch of civil engineers about public-works spending is like asking the barber if you need a haircut. Still, the organization’s work is impressive. It attempts a comprehensive assessment of needs in 10 categories, from aviation to wastewater.
You don’t need an engineering degree to see that many U.S. roads, train lines, bridges, sewers and water systems are less spiffy than in other advanced countries. Some national systems, like the interstates, look pretty good. Local streets, bridges, sidewalks, train stations, water tunnels and the like seem to be in the worst shape.
To some extent, these cracks in our infrastructure -- or public works, to use the meatier and older term -- reflect the cracks in our government. Under the American system, which is based on the English model, authority is separated among not only federal, state and local, but among independent public authorities, as well as private utility companies.
Google has revealed details of its research into augmented reality glasses.
It posted a brief introduction to Project Glass, photos and a concept video at its Google+ social network.
The images show a minimalist design with a microphone and partly-transparent video screen that places information over the view from the users' right eye.
The product's developers said they wanted feedback on the idea.
They did not give any indication about when the device might go on sale or what it would cost.
"A group of us... started Project Glass to build this kind of technology, one that helps you explore and share your world, putting you back in the moment," said a statement from Google X - the firm's experimental lab.
"We're sharing this information now because we want to start a conversation and learn from your valuable input."
The video suggests icons offering 14 different services will be offered to the user when the glasses are first put on, including information about the weather, their location and diary appointments.
It appears that several of these services are either triggered by an action taken by the user or the situation they are in.
The film shows one user being reminded he has a date that evening when he looks up at a blank wall, and then warns him that there is a 10% chance it will rain when he looks out of the window.
An alert pops up when a friend sends a text asking if he wants to meet up later in the day. When the user dictates a reply a microphone symbol is superimposed over much of his view.
Other functions include Google Maps showing a route to the wearer's destination with small arrows keeping him on track, the ability to take a photo of what he is looking at with an option to share it with friends, and a video conference service.
The glasses are also shown to allow music and other audio to be heard, although they do not appear to include earphones.
Shrink to fit
There had been lots of speculation about the project with some reports describing it as an "open secret", but this is the first time Google has confirmed details of what it was working on.
The New York Times had previously suggested that the first set of glasses would go on sale before the end of the year for somewhere between $250-$600 (£157-£378) - but experts say that the technology shown in the video may still be some way off being ready for market.
Chris Green, principal technology analyst at Davies Murphy Group Europe, told the BBC that other tech firms such as Brother had attempted to pioneer the concept - but became unstuck because their versions had required users to carry separate processing and battery equipment that plugged into their glasses.