Chernobyl Is Not As Quiet As We'd Like
Cleanup from Chernobyl took decades, and the initial concrete "sarcophagus" that was built over it didn't last terribly well, and leaked rather more than you'd want a nuclear disaster shield to leak (though fortunately, it mostly let rainwater in rather than anything out). Turns out, though, that all that rainwater may actually have been helping things a bit.
Subreactor room 305/2 - which is one of the many bits of the former plant that contain a whole lot of weird, radioactive "lava" that flowed in there during the meltdown and then cooled - is, unfortunately, showing signs of an increasing fission reaction, which is really not something you want outside of an operating reactor core. It seems that the leaking rainwater was actually moderating the reaction, and now it's dried out, nothing is there to capture and slow down all those errant neutrons.
There's nothing to worry too much about yet - scientists have a whole load of possible approaches as to how to quiet the reaction down if it gets a bit too out of hand, and most of them involve robots because, thankfully, robot technology has improved significantly in the decades since the original disaster - but it's still a little more than I wanted to hear about Chernobyl this year.
One Less Beautifully Imposing Monument
The Centennial Memorial Tower in Sapporo, Japan is set to be demolished - which is a grand shame, as they just don't make them like this any more. Modern architecture is obsessed with looking clean and pretty, rather than making a statement like this tower does.
Unfortunately, the tower has been in bad shape for many years, with random pieces falling off - so it sort of has to be demolished. Fingers crossed that a replacement will keep the same design ideas; if you ask me, we just don't build enough ridiculous, imposing monuments any more.
They're also tearing down Tokyo's Nakagin Capsule Tower, which is similarly iconic and honestly an inspired design I wish more places had at least borrowed some ideas from. It's not a great month for modernist architecture in Japan.
The Golden Gate Bridge Is Still Humming
The Golden Gate Bridge, in San Francisco, is iconic - world-famous, even. And, yes, painting it is hard, but apparently adding all the various safety features they didn't think about back in the 1930s is even harder.
When they retrofitted the western side's safety railing last year, the engineers accidentally introduced an element into the bridge that makes it hum in certain wind conditions. And it's not just a quiet hum - it's clearly audible when driving across and even audible from houses a few miles away.
They're now close to a fix, but I'm sure this is a case where you really double-check the fix, to make sure you don't accidentally amplify the hum, or send it into the ultrasonic and deafen bats, or something.
A Pickup Truck That Can Power Your House
Ford really went in on their electric vehicle push this week with the introduction of the F-150 Lightning - their all-electric version of the truck that has been the US' best selling vehicle for decades.
Among other tricks, including your standard ridiculous acceleration and a very decent range for its price point, the new Lightning can power an entire house for days - after all, it's basically a 100kWh battery that happens to have a chassis around it. This, and other marketing around the new Lightning, is clearly designed to cater to the F-150's base - no mention of the environment, and instead lots of talking about its power, speed, and presumed ability to save entire villages from mysterious threats.
Of course, the F-150 still has an incredibly dangerous design for pedestrians with that giant front cross-section, but this is an unfortunate design aesthetic common to many popular US cars. If Ford can get the majority of the US to start taking electric vehicles seriously, this is probably still a net win overall.
The Revival Of The Gander Airport Escalator
Gander Airport - in Newfoundland, right on the eastern tip of Canada - has the town's first-ever escalator, a beautiful mid-century modernist, wood-panelled design.
It went out of service in 2004, and everyone just sort of assumed the chain had broken, or there was some other near-impossible-to-fix problem. This month, the airport's chief electrician decided to go have a look, and lo and behold, it was actually in somewhat serviceable condition and turned back on - they're now trying to get it fully tested and re-certified.
It may just be one escalator in a small town, but it's their first escalator - and besides, it's in an airport, and airports always have the best weird little bits of infrastructure. I definitely have a trip to Gander - and its airport escalator - in my plans now.
Yup, Data Breaches Are Still Too Common
Jacob does an excellent job breaking down some of the trends in this year's Data Breach Investigations Report, which seems ever-more relevant now that cryptocurrency has really made ransomware and extortion much more feasible.
The report seems to back that up, showing that 70% of attacks had some kind of financial motivation - and, crucially, only 3% of attacks come via good old "exploiting holes in old software". If you're not particularly tied into computer security, a lot of this report is likely not super useful, but Jacob has some good high-level analysis on what some of the trends mean.
Fungi Can Navigate IKEA Better Than You
Fungi are certainly one of the more under-appreciated branches of life, but this wonderful writeup by the London Review of Books contains some fascinating insights into the route-finding and problem-solving abilities of fungi.
Not only can the mycelial networks navigate out of a floorplan of IKEA with surprising accuracy, they are also apparently adept at recreating the UK's motorway system or the Tokyo Metro layout.
This has been experimented on before - slime moulds are famously good at this - but it's always fun to see more experiments about quite what fungi are capable of. Let's hope we can harness their fantastic power for good in the coming years.
Breathing Through The Anus
It turns out that the 18th century may have been surprisingly right about one thing - mammals really can breathe through their intestines, though using special oxygen-rich liquids rather than tobacco smoke.
The idea of liquid breathing has been around for a while - after all, there's mechanically no reason why your lungs can't exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide with the right liquid rather than air - but for obvious reasons, it's rather difficult to test ethically. By avoiding the lungs and instead putting that oxygen-rich liquid in the wrong end, the scientists here have both achieved a fantastic result and not ruined any lungs in the process, so that's a win-win if you ask me.
Traditional ventilators are really not great on the lungs given that they basically work by mechanical brute force, so an alternative that's a lot less damaging would be very welcome, especially given what we've seen with diseases like COVID-19.
I'm All Thumbs
Have you ever tried doing something one-handed and concluded that you just don't have enough thumbs? Well, thankfully the researchers at UCL are here for you, and they've brought strange extra thumbs that apparently work quite well.
It's actually a very good illustration of how the human body is particularly good at adapting to tools - as recent research has shown, the human brain has evolved special parts to handle them - but it also looks both wonderfully creepy and incredibly useful, even if it is controlled with a foot at the moment rather than some advanced brain-computer interface.
Make sure you watch the video at the bottom of the page to see people doing wonderfully impossible things with one hand now they have the advantage of two thumbs, such as stirring a cup of tea while holding it, or peeling a banana entirely one-handed.
Germany's Most Eccentric Extortionist
The New Yorker has a great profile up on Arno Funke ("Dagobert"). He's quite well-known in Germany, but perhaps less well known in the rest of the world, and is mostly famous for the ridiculous schemes he used to try and get away with money without police catching him, styling himself after Scrooge McDuck (for whom Dagobert is the German name)
He loved inventing ridiculous ways to receive ransom money, including making police stick it to a train using remote-control electromagnets, creating a fake road gritting box with a hidden trapdoor underneath, a submarine, and a small remote-control train combined with firecrackers to hide its location.
He managed to evade police for years, but when he was finally caught, he spent six years in prison before reforming and becoming a cartoonist. There's a permanent exhibition in the Hamburg police headquarters where you can go and see the false-bottomed gritting box and the submarine, among other exhibits.
The 11 Foot 8 (+8) Bridge Is Still At It
We love bridges here at Tales From The Infrastructure, and there is maybe no bridge that is more internet-famous than the "11foot8" bridge in Durham, North Carolina. For many years, its ridiculously low clearance combined with a series of inattentive truck drivers led to some very spectacular crashes, all captured on webcam for everyone to see.
The bridge was finally raised by eight inches in 2019, and while it has helped lessen the number of crashes, they still happen - as this video shows, the bridge's crash beam is still low enough to do a perfect peel of this wayward truck earlier this month.
Maybe one day they'll make the bridge clearance a sensible height, but until then, we all get to enjoy video of drivers who don't read signs being the bane of bridge and tunnel engineers everywhere.