I was not surprised when I heard that the Obamacare Web site, healthcare.gov, crashed and burned right out of the gate.
But I was disappointed. Regardless of what I think of the Affordable Care Act, it's the law. I wanted its implementation, including healthcare.gov, to go well.
Still, I wasn't surprised because I know how government software gets made. Several years ago I worked in middle management for a company that built a government Web application related to health-care customer service.
A slightly different version of this first appeared at Curbside Classic. But I thought you might like it, too.
Few Americans alive today remember a time before the extensive highway system we enjoy. We just get into our cars, and off we go.
But just 100 years ago, the nation didn’t have any kind of a road network. Existing roads were crude; it ranged from difficult to impossible to drive long distances. A book I own called Overland by Auto in 1913 transcribes a family’s diary as they journeyed from California to Indiana in their 1910 Mitchell automobile. In some Western states, they simply couldn’t find any roads and had to drive their car over whatever terrain they encountered!
Humans have always wanted to follow the blazed trail. They started by walking the paths that animals had trodden. In the fledgling United States of the early 1800s, these were often the only roads. But as the United States grew, such roads became insufficient, especially to move people and goods into the West. Some better roads were built before 1850, notably the National Road, which stretched from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois. Most of it later became US 40. In its eastern states, The National Road was a rare hard-surfaced road, paved in macadam. But most roads were dirt, and some were filled with tree stumps. As long as the wagons could clear them, it was all good. But by 1850 the railroad came to prominence and the nation’s major roads were mostly left to rot.
After the modern bicycle came along in the 1880s, bicyclists found it difficult to ride out into the country because the existing roads were so poor. They especially couldn’t ride after it rained, as the available roads became impassable mud bogs. Shortly, riders organized to form the Good Roads Movement and pressed for well-maintained, all-weather roads.
The automobile’s growing popularity in the early 20th century really made the Good Roads Movement take off. At first, private groups stitched together existing roads into highways of sorts known as auto trails and sought improvements to them. The Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway, is arguably the best known auto trail. Thanks to Good Roads lobbying, states soon got into the road-building game. They took over most of the old auto trails and built new highways. That’s how our modern highway network got its start.
Roads were first improved with gravel and crushed stone, but states also experimented with hard surfacing. They tried brick and concrete first. Sometimes these early hard-surfaced roads were left behind by later improvements, such as this brick highway that was once US 66 in Illinois. Brick roads were very labor intensive to build – each brick had to be placed by hand. As a result, brick fell out of favor by about 1930.
Road builders even experimented a little with road width. This is a now-famous section of the “sidewalk highway,” an original alignment of US 66 in Oklahoma that’s just nine feet wide. Oncoming cars each had to drive partway off the road to pass each other.
Illinois tried nine-foot-wide roads too when it first paved some of its portion of the National Road. By the late 1920s it was clear that roads needed to be wide enough for two opposing streams of traffic. So Illinois added three-foot-wide concrete strips on either side of this narrow road; the original nine-foot section is in the middle. This road has been abandoned for about 60 years. This portion of it provides access to a basketball-loving family’s home.
The earliest concrete roads featured no expansion joints, so naturally they cracked. My research dates this concrete to about 1923.
It didn’t take long for road builders to figure out that expansion joints were necessary. This concrete is from about 1926, I think, and features a center joint and regular lateral joints.
It was common in our highway network’s early days for even major routes to feature several different road surfaces along its length. This is a page from a 1922 road guide that gave turn-by-turn directions between cities. Notice how the National Road, later US 40, between Terre Haute and Indianapolis was at turns concrete, gravel, stone, and vaguely “pavement.” Today, of course, the vast majority of highways are paved in asphalt, although concrete is still used here and there.
But by the late 1920s one could drive between most American cities on highways that were at least graded gravel and more likely paved in some hard surface. The kinds of cars being built in America reflected this change. Early cars such as the Ford Model T were meant to go anywhere. Ford’s next car, the Model A, was a less like a mountain goat, with lower ground clearance and a more refined ride – just right for America’s emerging road network.
World War II is roughly a dividing line in our nation’s road history. Before then, states were busy hard-surfacing their highways wherever they happened to lie. Steep hills and sharp curves were simply part of the American highway experience. It was simply too expensive, and sometimes physically impossible, for states to significantly shape the terrain for straighter and flatter roads.
But after World War II, our nation had shifted from an agrarian to an urban lifestyle, and through the 1950s we increasingly moved out of cities into suburbs. More and more cars filled America’s roads, and they became ever more powerful. This created the next problem America’s road builders had to solve. Blind hills and sharp curves created very dangerous conditions on what had become very congested highways. Impatient drivers would get behind trucks struggling with a steep grade and try to pass without good line of sight, often with disastrous results. And as large trucks increasingly moved goods around the nation, narrow highways only 16 to 18 feet wide made encountering an oncoming truck a frightening experience. Fortunately, road-building technology had improved and it became within states’ financial reach to build wider, flatter, and straighter roads.
And so after World War II, road builders got busy cutting deeply into the earth and filling in valleys to create more level road surfaces. They blasted away rock so the road could go straight through rather than around. And as they laid new roads, lanes grew ever wider.
Soon, multi-lane highways started to be built. Some roads got this treatment before World War II; Indiana’s US 40 was among them. I understand that this was part of a larger national initiative to create roads that would allow easier military troop and equipment movement should it become necessary. Military uses were an important driver behind the Interstate Highway system that started to be built in the 1950s. But also, traffic was just terrible in many places, and more lanes meant swifter travel.
Four-laning of existing highways picked up speed after World War II. Soon, Interstate highways were built, often in the same corridors as existing US highways. I-70, for example, parallels US 40 across Indiana. When I lived in Terre Haute many years ago, the local paper ran a story on the effect Interstate 70 had on the area. Longtime business owners on US 40 were interviewed, and one of them said something like, “The morning I-70 was opened, it was as if someone turned off the spigot on US 40. One minute the traffic was bumper to bumper, and the next it slowed to a trickle, and it’s been that way ever since. Now it’s just local traffic on US 40.” In rural counties, it’s common to find US 40 to be empty, as in this photo.
Road geeks like me like it that way. The old roads are ours for the driving, and we can do silly things like pose right in the middle of a once-busy highway for a photograph. Let the cars rush by on the nearby Interstate.
I’ve written extensively about the old roads on this blog. My Road Trips category captures it all.
Interested in finding the old roads
yourself? Click here for some tips.
My little Kodak EasyShare Z730 is a respectable point-and-shoot digital camera. Even though I moved on to Canon PowerShot digicams several years ago, at first shooting an S80 donated by reader Lone Primate, and now a sublime S95, I still get out my Z730 from time to time. It’s a wonderful companion on a nature walk, as it captures color better than either of my Canons.
This photo is from my family’s Washington, D.C., trip in 2009. We toured the U.S. Capitol and I took this photo inside. The Z730 did all right in the available light, and did a really nice job of capturing color and detail. Unfortunately, everything inside that dome was blown out. So I just brought the image into Photoshop to blunt the effect.
Quirky. That’s how I’d best describe the Kodak Retina Reflex IV. Fortunately, it’s quirky in an endearing way.
Appearing near the end of the Retina line’s 35-year run, the Retina Reflex IV was manufactured from 1964 to 1966. It was the fourth and last Retina SLR model, but it shared its quirks with its predecessors. If you’re used to the modern SLR idiom, here’s how the Retina Reflexes differ:
- Most SLRs place the shutter button, wind lever, and film counter on the top. The Retina Reflex places them on the front, bottom, and bottom, respectively.
- You might look through the viewfinder, find it black, and think the camera is broken. On the contrary; just wind to the next frame, which raises the mirror so you can see through the viewfinder again.
- The Reflex uses a Synchro Compur leaf shutter (1-1/500 sec.), while most SLRs use some sort of vertical-plane shutter.
- You can buy a range of lenses for your Reflex – but only the front element interchanges. The remaining lens elements are fixed behind the shutter, which is exposed when you remove the front element.
The Reflex uses a selenium light meter, coupled to a needle atop the camera and inside the viewfinder. You adjust exposure until the needle is horizontal. The Reflex’s aperture and shutter speed rings are coupled – turning one always turns the other. This lets you keep an exposure as you dial in deeper or shallower depth of field. So to set exposure, you turn the shutter speed ring until the speed you want lines up with the arrow. To set the aperture, you then turn the knurled wheel under the lens barrel.
Focusing works as on any other SLR: turn the focus ring until the image in the viewfinder is sharp. The viewfinder includes a split-image focusing aid for finer focusing control. It’s at a 45-degree angle, which I thought was a great idea. Most split-image lines are horizontal, meaning you have to turn the camera slightly to focus when the lines in your frame are horizontal. The Reflex eliminates that.
The Retina Reflex IV cost $277 when it was new, which is an astonishing $2,090 in 2013 dollars. These are even a little expensive on the collector market, starting at about $100. I got mine for $45 on shopgoodwill.com, an auction site that offers many old-camera bargains from Goodwill stores nationwide. But buying there is always a crapshoot because the cameras are donated and untested. I lost on this roll of the dice because my Reflex’s light meter barely registers light. The conventional wisdom is that Retina Reflexes are complex and a royal pain to fix. I don’t really like to fix old cameras anyway and will do only the simplest repairs and cleanings, so it’s good that everything else on my Reflex seemed to work all right. I used an external light meter, dropped in some Kodak Tri-X 400, and got shooting.
I blew the whole 24-exposure roll in about an hour in my yard after work one night. It had been a stressful day in the office, but shooting my Reflex melted the day’s weariness away. The sun was starting to set, so the light was delicious. One of the trees in my front yard sports these tiny leaves.
The lens is pretty sharp but I wish it were a little more contrasty. I finagled more contrast out of these shots in Photoshop.
About two-thirds of the way through the roll my brain failed me. I thought, “Hey, wait, I’m exposing these shots for ISO 400 film, but Tri-X is ISO 100!” So I set my meter for 100 and shot the rest of the roll. I was right in the first place – Tri-X is absolutely ISO 400 film. But when the images came back from the processor, everything I metered at 400 was slightly overexposed and everything I metered at 100 was spot on. Maybe my meter is off. Here’s one of those ISO 100 shots.
Shooting into the sun is obviously more likely to give you flare, but I’ve done it before in this setting and got a lot less flare than I got in this shot. It makes me think the 50mm f/2.8 Schneider-Kreuznach Retina Xenar lens that came with my Reflex is just a little flare-prone.
I also had trouble getting focus right on a few shots. I was trying to focus on my dog, Gracie, but managed to make only the back wall crisp.
See more photos from my home adventure in my Kodak Retina Reflex IV gallery.
I really lost myself in shooting my Reflex, which is always a great sign. Seriously, I never blow through 24 shots in an hour. But as you can see, I got mixed results. I’m sure that if I kept shooting this camera I’d figure out its exposure and focusing quirks and get consistently good results from it. But I’m unlikely to put film in this camera again, because when I want to shoot an SLR I have many other choices with easier usability, more accurate meters, and better glass.
Do you like old cameras?
Then check out my entire collection.
For as long as I can remember, new Paul McCartney music has been a big event for me.
It started with the Beatles music my mother played around the house when I was very small. But McCartney’s post-Beatles work really formed the soundtrack of my life. Aged four, I sat at the breakfast table waiting for Mom to bring me breakfast while one of his early post-Beatles hits played on the little transistor radio atop our refrigerator. On long trips in Dad’s Ford, my brother and I used to sing his most famous songs a cappella together. I spent much of one youthful summer swimming while a monster hit he did with Wings played constantly on the radio. I danced at the big middle-school dance to his flamenco-charged nod to disco. During my disk-jockey days, I played his new songs on the radio. I sang his new songs to my new baby as he cried with colic. I let his words soothe me when I suffered my divorce. And I never failed to share his new songs with my sons, who can sing along with me now on a huge portion of the McCartney catalog.
And now comes his new album, New. It released yesterday. Thanks to Amazon.com I downloaded the music first thing yesterday morning and then a copy of the CD awaited me in my mailbox when I arrived home from work.
As always, I will listen to it incessantly in the car for the next several weeks. I will soak it in. I will learn the lyrics and sing along. It will come to remind me of this time in my life and the things I am experiencing now.
Paul McCartney never meant to save the world with his songs. He just wanted to craft some good, clever pop that kept our knees bobbing. He’s done it again, aged 71. Here’s the lyric video for the title track of New.
Paul McCartney saved my life once.
He has no idea, of course. Read that story.
Such was the case with my Olympus XA late this summer. I had bought a four-pack of almost-expired Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800 on clearance at Meijer. After putting a roll of it through my Pentax ME earlier in the summer I wanted to see how it handled in my XA.
I just had the film processed and was especially pleased with a couple shots I took at the Indiana State Fair in August. This first one is a dusk shot looking toward the midway. The extra two stops the ISO 800 film gave me over my usual ISO 200 film really helped here.
I found this young man feeding a goat in the petting zoo. I was glad to be able to make more exposures inside thanks to the Fuji 800. I cropped this image down from the original shot – the XA’s 35mm lens is on the wide side, and so isn’t ideal for close work.
The XA handled flawlessly as always, and was unobtrusive. Whenever I hang an SLR around my neck people notice I’m taking pictures; not so with the tiny XA. My only wish for these photos is that they were a little sharper and a little less grainy.
My Olympus XA2 is also a fine
performer. Read about it here.
I get so busy with my old film cameras that sometimes I forget my Canon PowerShot S95 does good work. I took it with me the other evening to Northwestway Park, where I met a friend for a stroll as the sun set. Northwestway is a suburban park surrounded by cul-de-sac subdivisions. It’s where youth play organized soccer on Indianapolis’s Northwestside.
Thanks to encouragement from my old friend Michael I’ve been experimenting with shooting my S95 in aperture-priority (Av) mode rather than in fully automatic mode. Setting up Av mode is slower and less intuitive than on any of my old film cameras, but then the screen shows exactly what I’m going to get, so I call it a fair tradeoff. I shot this with my lens zoomed to a 50mm equivalent, with “film speed” at ISO 80, for 1/200 sec. at f/3.2, with exposure bumped up by a third of a stop. The S95 packs an f/2 lens, but when it’s zoomed from its 24mm default to 50mm, f/3.2 is as wide as it opens.
Another favorite digital photo is of
a rainy evening, from my deck. See it here.