Lesson #285: The Interstate Straight Mile Myth

This was sort of prompted by a conversation I had with my best friend, who called me today to talk about the possibility of revolution in America. We don’t often share the same intellectual interests, so this caught me a bit off guard. But I’m not going to lie; it was kind of awesome. I don’t find so many opportunities these days to talk about my area of expertise, so when I can dive into revolutionary theory, (even if it’s not about NI,) I’m game. This later descended into a conversation about how if I ever move to Florida, I need to get a Vespa.*

You have almost certainly heard that one mile in ever four (or five, depending on the source) in the US Interstate System is legally required to be straight for the purpose of landing aircraft during an emergency. It’s one of those things that gets passed around in those “fun facts” emails.

And it’s a complete lie.

My mother has a habit of sending me emails like this that show up in her inbox because she knows how much I loathe poor research and that I’ll find out the truth for her. And I think she finds my rants about the idiocy of people who pass on such emails without bothering to fact check funny.**

The interstate myth is one I consistently read in emails, but have never bothered to confirm or refute, so when I came across this article written by a DOT historian, I was highly entertained. I feel this guy’s pain. As historians, we are working with a field about which the average person knows maybe 10% of what he thinks he does. The rest? He learned in an email full of “facts” some jackass made up.

According to the DOT, “airplanes occasionally land on Interstates when no alternative is available in an emergency, not because the Interstates are designed for that purpose.”

*Honestly, it’s best not to think too hard on the conversations we have. They’re informed by the shorthand of our long friendship.

**My habit of fact checking all blurbs like this is actually something that drives my friends a little nuts. They say my schooling has completely removed my ability to accept things at face value, and that’s sort of true, but if you’re telling me the etymology of the word posh is as an acronym meaning “Port Out, Starboard Home” in reference to wealthy English people making trips to and from India, it’s a sure bet I’m going to doubt it until my source is something better than “my friend sitting next to me at the bar,” well-read though he may be.


Lesson #87: The Michelin Guide

Club Manager Housemate and I were watching TV tonight after dinner and came across a really interesting show on Michelin Stars and their magical powers.* And we learned a bit about the history of them. I was far more interested in that than in the people who actually have Michelin Stars and whether they would keep them when the new guide came out at the end of January. Mostly because I don’t really care that much.

I always kind of giggled when I heard about Michelin Stars because it always made me think of the Michelin Man. To my delighted surprise, I was not even a little bit wrong.

The Michelin Guide was first put together by the Michelin brothers in 1900. It was designed to be a book to inform French motorists where they could service their vehicles and buy gas. Maps were introduced to the guides in 1910 and in 1920, the Michelin brothers started charging (seven francs) for copies of the guide. The guide began recommending hotels and restaurants in 1923 and the star system was came about in 1926, establishing Michelin as a trusted resource in fine dining in France. The original system had only one star, but in 1931 the current incarnation of two and three stars was introduced.**

*I’m not even kidding. French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide in February 2003 over fears that he was going to lose his third star.

**More can be read here and here.

Lesson #82: The Trans-Canada Highway

8/3 edit: My dad informed me yesterday that the TCH is not, in fact, always Highway 1. In fact, it’s not Highway 1 pretty much everywhere east of Manitoba. Anyway, he would know because I think he’s probably driven on about 7500 kilometres of it, so I’ve changed the post for accuracy.

The Trans-Canada Highway runs the width of Canada from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia over a distance of 8,030 kilometres. On the way, it passes through some of Canada’s biggest cities, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver (or Ottawa and Edmonton if you take the northern route). Its highest point is Kicking Horse Point, between my maternal grandfather’s hometown of Revelstoke and Golden, BC, at 1643 m. The midpoint of the Trans-Canada Highway is Batchwana, Ontario.

The Trans-Canada Highway Act was passed in 1949 with a goal of connecting the 10 provinces with a paved highway by Canada’s centennial year.* It was officially opened in 1962 and completed in 1971. It is the third longest highway in the world behind Australia’s Highway 1 (25,000 km which actually circles Australia) and Russia’s Trans-Siberian Highway (11,000 km).**

Autobiographical note: On my list of things to do before I die is drive this from one end to the other, although I’ve been on much of it on the east coast.


**More information can be found here and here.

Lesson #66: Asphalt

Autobiographical note: Those of you who actually know me will get the reference.

Around 1997, in the US alone, 70 billion tons of asphalt were used annually. That number has probably increased since then. It should be noted that asphalt is not only used in paving, but also for things like roofing, adhesives and batteries. The popularity of asphalt is due to its waterproofing and binding properties — in roads, the ability to bind various sands and stones together to create a smooth, paved surface — and it is derived from petroleum processing. It’s basically the very last usable byproduct of the processing. According to the Chemical Engineering News, asphalt is composed mainly (around 80%) of carbon; the rest is made up of  hydrogen (10%), sulfur (up to 6%), small amounts of oxygen and nitrogen, and trace amounts of iron, nickel, and vanadium.

“Ideally, asphalt used for paving roads should remain viscoelastic in all weather conditions. However, many asphalt roads soften in summer and suffer from rutting, or permanent deformation, as it is also called. At low temperatures, neutral molecules in asphalt arrange themselves into more organized structural forms. As a result, the material hardens, becomes brittle, and cracks under the stress of heavy traffic loads. This is known as thermal and fatigue cracking.

Asphalts also lose their plasticity and therefore harden and crack or crumble when they lose their more volatile lower molecular weight constituents or when these constituents are oxidized. This process is known as aging. Moisture from rain and other sources can also invade and damage asphalts, particularly aged or oxidized asphalts because they have a larger number of polar constituents to attract water molecules.”*

So that explains why half of Kentucky is always under construction.

*Quoted material can be found in this article.