This John Oliver Video on Infrastructure is Worth Your Time

On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver often takes on important issues—net neutrality, sugar content, climate change. But last night, he touched on a topic that I'm hugely passionate about: America's infrastructure.

Before I came to mental_floss, I was an editor at Popular Mechanics, where I contributed to a year-long investigation of U.S. infrastructure, watching workers lay rebar in the second span of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac, walking along the crumbling locks and dams on the busiest part of the Ohio River in Illinois, and checking out the massive machinery being used to build its replacement in Kentucky (construction began in 1988 and still continues today). I have a lot of photos of myself wearing hard hats.

What PopMech found then—and what's still the case today, as Oliver points out—is that America's infrastructure is in bad shape. Really bad shape. Every year, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases an infrastructure report card. In 2013, the most recent year available, the average grade was D+. Solid waste earned the highest grade, a B-; bridges earned a middling C+; and inland waterways are at a D-.

Aside from the horrifying possibility of a bridge collapse, how might the failure of infrastructure affect you? Let's make an example of inland waterways. Rivers and canals are the unsung heroes of freight transportation: One barge carries enough cargo to fill 15 train cars or 58 tractor trailers. If a lock and dam goes down, all those trucks have to hit the road, causing congestion and pollution.

The problem, according to Oliver, is that "when our infrastructure isn't being destroyed by robots and/or saved by Bruce Willis, we tend to find it a bit boring." Sure, infrastructure isn't necessarily sexy, but, as the host points out, it is important—and pretty interesting. (Just look at all of these awesome bridges!) When I did my reporting, I talked to scientists who are doing all kinds of cool infrastructure-related things, like developing self-healing concrete and polymers for bridges and roads that could repair itself in the event of a crack, self-sensing skins that would alert authorities when cracks occur, and carbon-fiber reinforced polymer jackets that could be retrofitted to concrete columns to keep them from failing.

"Every summer, people flock to see our infrastructure threatened by terrorists or aliens," Oliver says. "But we should care just as much when it's under threats from the inevitable passage of time. The problem is, no one has made a blockbuster movie about the importance of routine maintenance and repair." You can probably guess what happens next. (It involves Edward Norton, Steve Buscemi, and plenty of puns.) Hopefully, Oliver's take on the subject, along with his faux trailer, will help draw attention to this huge problem.

Roadside Bear Statue in Wales is So Lifelike That Safety Officials Want It Removed

Wooden bear statue.

There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

The Most Popular Infomercial Product in Each State

You don't have to pay $19.95 plus shipping and handling to discover the most popular infomercial product in each state: AT&T retailer All Home Connections is giving that information away for free via a handy map.

The map was compiled by cross-referencing the top-grossing infomercial products of all time with Google Trends search interest from the past calendar year. So, which crazy products do people order most from their TVs?

Folks in Arizona know that it's too hot there to wear layers; that's why they invest in the Cami Secret—a clip-on, mock top that gives them the look of a camisole without all the added fabric. No-nonsense New Yorkers are protecting themselves from identity theft with the RFID-blocking Aluma wallet. Delaware's priorities are all sorted out, because tons of its residents are still riding the Snuggie wave. Meanwhile, Vermont has figured out that Pajama Jeans are the way to go—because who needs real pants?

Unsurprisingly, the most popular product in many states has to do with fitness and weight loss, because when you're watching TV late enough to start seeing infomercials, you're probably also thinking to yourself: "I need to get my life together. I should get in shape." Seven states—Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin—have invested in the P90X home fitness system, while West Virginia and Arkansas prefer the gentler workout provided by the Shake Weight. The ThighMaster is still a thing in Illinois and Washington, while Total Gym and Bowflex were favored by South Dakota and Wyoming, respectively. 

Kitchen items are clearly another category ripe for impulse-buying: Alabama and North Dakota are all over the George Forman Grill; Alaska and Rhode Island are mixing things up with the Magic Bullet; and Floridians must be using their Slice-o-matics to chop up limes for their poolside margaritas.

Cleaning products like OxiClean (D.C. and Hawaii), Sani Sticks (North Carolina), and the infamous ShamWow (which claims the loyalty of Mainers) are also popular, but it's Proactiv that turned out to be the big winner. The beloved skin care system claimed the top spot in eight states—California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas—making it the most popular item on the map.

Peep the full map above, or check out the full study from All Home Connections here.


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