2020-09-07 6 min read


Notes, 2020-09-07.

Earlier this year, a temporary wastewater pipe sat atop a usually-busy street near where Anna lives in Wellington, New Zealand, due to a rupture in the main pipe which resulted in an estimated five million liters (roughly two olympic swimmings pools) of wastewater spewing into the local harbour. The “poo tube” was above ground for over two months, cutting off traffic along one of Wellington’s key thoroughfares while a permanent replacement pipe was installed. Goofy and annoying as it was, the tube provided a useful and very visible reminder of the waste that flows around cities every day, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of failing to maintain vital infrastructure.

We’re already menders and repairers, but with ongoing disruptions to travel and supply chains, we’ve been doubling down. Kelly (who lives a continent away, in San Francisco) is learning to draft clothing patterns, and Anna is brushing up on the basics of home appliance repair. But as always, personal actions are a drop in the ocean compared with the institutional and infrastructural investments needed to maintain, repair, and heal our systems at scale.

-Kelly Pendergrast & Anna Pendergrast

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~12% of opens) was a workflow (and software tool) for fabricating objects with integrated mechanisms using a laser cutter. Chatter this week on the paid subscriber chat includes leading causes of death of children (spoiler: they're all cars), hundreds of spoof AirPods, and all the reasons why you *shouldn't* 3D print food.

Planning & Strategy.

  • Even with the best of intentions, documents, archives, and creative work can be put at risk when the media on which they’re recorded turn out to be not-so-futureproof. In 1998, composer Wendy Carlos wrote about how the master recordings for the Tron soundtrack were almost lost due to an unstable binder in the tapes, before she figured out how to save them by gently “baking” the tapes in a low oven. (We learned about this story via our favourite film podcast).
  • The Lippitt-Knoster model for managing complex change, with its clear and intuitive table illustration, has been around since the late 80s. It seems more relevant than ever right now, at a time when change needs to happen everywhere and the process feels almost impossibly complex.
  • Some extremely funky colors and graphics in these 1972 data visualizations of Iran’s demographics, industries, and natural resources.

Engineering & Design.

  • Design and engineering happens everywhere, by professionals and amateurs alike. This gallery of home-engineered adaptive tools created or repurposed by one disabled woman provides a fascinating insight into the permutations and limitations of everyday tools. The project’s co-founder Sara Hendren has a new book out (which Chuma mentioned last week) about adaptive design and the ways our bodies meet the built world — highly recommended. Hendren’s work, which deals both with individual design interventions for disabled people (like the adaptive tools above) and public interventions, has us thinking about whose responsibility it is to make the world accessible. New tech solutions like exosuits or wheelchairs that can climb stairs are often ingenious, but these put the onus on the individual to navigate a world not built for them. In many cases, better public design for accessibility can benefit everyone, making life easier for people with injuries, those pushing strollers, and beyond.
  • Straight knife fabric cutting is one of the most common ways that fabric is cut to shape for industrial garment production, and it’s mesmerizing to watch. Things get really cool when you add digital layout technology and automated cutting to the process—additions that can also majorly reduce waste from off-cuts.
  • In contrast to conventional garment production, zero waste pattern designers work (usually at an artisanal scale) to reduce or eliminate wasted fabric through experimental construction, 3D modeling, and computer aided layout tools. This can result in some pretty surprising designs, like designer and theorist Holly McQuillan’s ingenious puzzle-piece patterns.
  • If you live in California and you’re into hiking, then you know: Tom Harrison makes the best maps. How does one dude in San Rafael create such superb maps that are easy to read, detailed but clean, with mile markings that are more accurate than the often-shoddy National and State Park maps? Harrison has been making maps since the 70s, and this interview describes how his process has evolved over the years. These days, Adobe Illustrator and a GIS plugin (along with on-the-ground trail hiking research) are the tools that help the magic happen.
  • It’s hard to build “a toaster that lasts” when each stage of the design and manufacturing process incentivizes (or even rewards) cheapness and un-fixability. Projects like The Agency of Design’s “The Optimist” toaster — a cast aluminum forever-toaster that looks almost geological — are a fascinating glimpse into an alternate reality of long-lasting home goods. The over-the-top-ness of the toaster is almost the point: a demonstration of how difficult it is to design something affordable and truly durable.
  • Even 5 years down the track, we often think about this movie poster and how the designers “hid” a 2-star review in plain sight.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • Fashion brands use a range of techniques to make new clothes look distressed. In 2018, Italian fashion house Maison Margiela took this to a new level, with its $1600US Fusion sneaker. The shoes are made to look both distressed and hastily repaired at the same time. Hot-glue-looking silicone is smeared and duct tape is stitched, making them appear as though they “emerged from a chemical spill at the sneaker factory.”
  • The making of a globe: 1950s vs 2010s.
  • Engineer and musician Tristan Shone has found a compellingly hardcore solution to one of electronic music’s core performance problems: watching someone twiddling knobs and staring at a laptop just isn’t fun. As Author and Punisher, Shone designs and machines cyborgian tools—from giant spinning knobs to complex face prostheses—that he uses to control and manipulate sound. This profile video gives an insight into his production methods.
  • Before YouTube and its bottomless well of “how it’s made” videos, experimental and art filmmakers created work that gave viewers a glimpse at the ecstatic materiality and intricate processes of industrial production. Alain Resnais’s Le Chant du Styrène (plastic!) and Bert Haanstra’s Glas (glass!), both from 1958, are two of the best.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • How do you preserve and display computer-based artworks when the software and operating systems they were built on are no longer supported? Here’s a great case study from The Guggenheim on planning for the restoration of John F. Simon Jr.’s early web artwork Unfolding Object.
  • Earlier this year, a team of engineers from Germany were brought over to New Zealand to install a liner into a second wastewater tunnel in Wellington that needed repairs. This team were some of the few non-citizens or permanent residents allowed in since borders closed due to Covid-19 in March. During “normal” times, bringing in overseas expertise to repair or maintain infrastructure is fairly straightforward and nothing out of the ordinary, especially when it’s for specialist repairs. Due to Covid-19, in this case, a plane was chartered and the team went through a two week quarantine on arrival before being able to get to work, highlighting the potential downsides of not having in-house (or in-country) expertise.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • Blockchain hysteria has subsided considerably over the past year, which is likely a relief for anyone working in… well pretty much any industry. It was a lot. Still, the development of blockchain-enabled and other tech systems for building supply chain transparency and traceability continue apace. While many traceability systems aim to ensure environmental sustainability or the fair treatment of workers — absolutely essential goals — the outcome is sometimes (ironically) more exploitation. This 2019 article by ex-blockchain entrepreneur Dennison Bertram describes how “blockchain-powered supply chain startups like our own were promising farmers marginal increases in value, while simultaneously extracting data as [an] entirely new natural resource.”
  • We’re entranced by the “stick charts” that Marshall Island wayfinders developed as ocean navigation tools. The placement of elements, generally wood, coconut fiber, and/or shells, indicate the location of islands, waves, and currents, or represent the interaction of swells and landmasses.
  • Facebook Marketplace isn’t explicitly pitched as a place to buy and sell food, but it is home to a mind-boggling variety of listings for baked goods, hot meals and snack foods. We often think about how platforms can be used in ways they weren’t primarily designed for, and home cooks selling their wares on Facebook seems a perfect example. As this great Civil Eats article points out, home cooking enterprises can also be a way to “engage a group of cooks who were previously excluded from earning income through their food.”


  • These incredible root diagrams from 1919 show the great depths that grasses and shrubs go to find water and grasp the land. Root depth is frequently held up as a major reason for the resilience of prairies in the face of drought, but it turns out this might not be the case.
  • Crowdsourced answers to mysterious objects—the “What is this” subreddit is one of our faves.
  • I’m Google!! Have a scroll through Dina Kelberman’s associative image repository for some soothing weirdness.

This incredibly cool “wristlet” from the 1920s held tiny map scrolls that helped travelers navigate popular routes across the UK.

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