Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Another reason you should have doubts about this thing we call "progress"

When I was fourteen years old I got a summer job with the farmer across the road. It was a fun job. I got to drive stuff. Tractors. Trucks. Random farm machinery. It was heaven for a fourteen year old!

The farmer was a guy named Alex Anderson, and the farm had one of those "Century Farm" plaques at the end of the laneway. Those were given out as part of Canada's centennial celebration to honour farms that had been in the same family at least since confederation in 1867.

I got paid a dollar an hour for my 60 hour week. Deducted from that generous wage was the value of the dinner I had at noon every day with Alex and his two spinster sisters, which left me with about forty bucks in my pocket at the end of the week. Not that I complained. That dinner was the real deal. Meat and potatoes and gravy every single day, and a slice of pie (100% home made) too!

After dinner Alex would tell stories about the good old days, and then he'd fade away for his daily after-dinner nap, leaving me to attend to some of the simpler chores to which I could be entrusted without supervision.

I got up to all sorts of hilarity on those unsupervised work hours. I made it a personal quest to see if I could get the speedometer in his old Chevy pick-up truck to touch the 100 mph mark as I was making my way back to the corn field.

Never made it, but the time I got real close (over 90 mph) kinda put a scare into me. Stayed on the gas a little too long and hit the brakes a little too late, and by God, for a split second I thought I'd be fired for sure and Alex would have to buy a new truck.

By the way, that "split second" still feels like it took fifteen minutes to play out.

But I saved it.

So one of the yarns Alex shared with me was about the guy who'd put up the concrete silo at his farm. He was an elderly Scotsman who had for decades earned his living as a master builder. He specialized in building bridges and water towers. He was in high demand. There remain bridges on county roads today that he built 100 years ago that you can still drive over.

None of his stuff ever fell down.

Alas, somewhere along the arc of progress, it was decreed that only a certified engineer could be entrusted with the task of putting up a bridge or a water tower. Buddy was not a certified engineer.

He was reduced to putting up farm silos for what was left of his working life.

When I lived in New Brunswick in the early '90s there was a story much in the news about the collapse of the new Fredericton water tower. That was a job that made oodles of work for oodles of certified engineers and project engineers and consulting engineers, so a lot of well-educated faces went red when the thing fell down the first time they tried to fill it with water.

That's not a good thing when you just had all those certified engineers put it up.

I'm reminded of this because of a story I read today. Seems that some engineering types have been busy analysing the concrete that the ancient Romans used on their infrastructure projects. The Romans had better concrete two thousand years ago than what our engineering brainiacs are using today.


That's progress for you!

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