On Prince Edward Island for vacation this week, this view is everywhere. Rows of potatoes maturing in the early summer sun. Those rows look pretty perfect, though. And I’d have trouble drawing concentric curves, let alone driving a massive piece of farm equipment to get it just right. The answer? GPS. While I’m told there’s debate about its cost effectiveness, planting potatoes is just one of many tasks that has been automated with precision GPS tracking.
It caught my attention because I’d just read Scott Huler‘s On the Grid in preparation to interview him on Skeptically Speaking. The book is a thoughtful look at infrastructure systems in the city of Raleigh, and it surprised me in detailing the important role of GPS in planning of all kinds. It’s way more than a tool for lost drivers! (Okay, I knew that but didn’t know much about the specific uses). In one chapter Scott takes us on a surveyor’s tour of an in-progress housing development where GPS drives the bulldozers and takes the place of most of the stakes that would have marked the curbs, road boundaries, and water, power and sewer lines. Thanks to Scott I’ve also stood in parking lots wondering about transitions from asphalt to concrete, looked more carefully at storm drains that I ever imagined and started paying attention to urban streams.
For this week’s episode of Skeptically Speaking I had the chance to ask him all about the book, which he describes as his “love letter to engineers and taxes.” Given my own background, I couldn’t help but think that engineers are much deserving of the love. Along with Scott, I chatted with Tim DeChant, an environmental journalist who writes the density-themed blog Per Square Mile. Tim has done some fascinating writing about urban trees (who knew that cities might actually have a net positive effect on tree population in some areas?) and relationships between wealth and urban green spaces. You can listen to the episode or download the podcast from the Skeptically Speaking website.