infrastructure gobbles up a lot of money and its maintenance (or lack thereof) is a major issue in this country
You've nailed it. Infrastructure has become invisible, unlauded, boring. Infrastructure is the original stuff that matters.
Aside from entering some engineering field, there are ways that nerds can make a difference. Take this dam for example, clearly a certain level of routine surveillance had not been performed . If divers discover a 2 inch crack, could there have been a half inch or hairline crack some time ago? And could a more thorough use of remote imaging or even acoustic technology have spotted it? What if someone who reads Slashdot has an idea for some economical and effective way to inspect dams should contact Thomas Stredwick at PUD and offer expertise and propose such a method? At times history favors those who make those phone calls.
I define a 'nerd' as someone technologically aware who is capable, by the multidisciplinary nature of technology, of useful insight. The biggest problem with nerd-culture today in my opinion is that they tend to be observers who are not out there looking for problems to solve.
If you consider yourself to be tech-savvy in some field or are just interested in what problems are out there, check out the InnoCentive Challenges. These are a collection of problems to solve, big and little, that someone has documented and put up cash money to solve. Some of the challenges are interesting and very specific. For example, if you can propose a good way to Detect Protruding Nails in a Wooden Pallet that is going past on a conveyor belt, there might be $20,000 in it for you. Also lots of chemistry, medical materials science challenges.
Infrastructure should be a part of your child's exploration of the modern world. Underground by David Macaulay gives readers an introduction to utilities by presenting awesome ink drawings of incredible perspective and detail. As they start reading. Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape is the kind of book you want your children to grow up with and browse long before they understand all the words. Because great books about interesting things deliver the words to them.
I am an infrastructure maniac.
Obligatory bump to the Thorium Alliance and my own letters on energy,
To The Honorable James M. Inhofe, United States Senate
To whom it may concern, Halliburton Corporate