2021-05-17 5 min read


Notes, 2021-05-17.

We’ve been watching a lot of The Repair Shop recently, a British show where people bring in broken family heirlooms with the hope that expert craftspeople can restore or conserve them. One of the tricks to these transformations isn’t really a trick at all: it’s the willingness of the experts to put in many hours of repetitive and painstaking labor, whether it’s hand stitching metres of leather to avoid adding new holes, or realigning every component of a centuries-old clock. This blog post from Jakob Kaplan-Moss picks up on a similar idea, noting that in fields as disparate as computer programming and close-up magic, sometimes doing the grind—that is, committing to the epic and repetitive tasks that most people would never consider undertaking—appears akin to magic.

In the Repair Shop, and in the kind of well-compensated tech work Kaplan-Moss describes, the work and grind of the experts is celebrated. However, it’s much more common that the magic-producing grind is outsourced to hidden and unacknowledged workers who receive none of the acclaim afforded to the scholars and corporations that commission their labor. As any Mechanical Turk contractor or electronics assembly line worker could tell you, so many of the products that seem miraculous—from facial recognition systems to just-in-time manufacturing—are underpinned by this kind of grind. But instead of one committed programmer or meticulous leathersmith, the magic comes from a thousand distributed workers paid by the task to label datasets, assemble orders, or solder components.

-Kelly & Anna Pendergrast

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~14% of opens) was a video of a domino-laying lego machine. This week we're finishing up our Members' reading group chat about The Innovation Delusion, and will be tuning in Wednesday at noon ET to hear Narissa Chang, Nike's director of mechanical engineering, chat about the work behind their self-lacing shoes.

Planning & Strategy.

  • The idea of a linear city has captured people’s imaginations well before Mohammed bin Salman’s recent (and ultimately unlikely) plans to build The Line. In this 1972 film by Soviet animators the Brumberg sisters, schoolchildren explain how they would remake the world if they had a magic wand, with one kid (at 4:41) describing their fantasy of “many houses together in one really long line” — an infinite Soviet housing block! In the 1960s, Polish architect Oskar Hansen proposed an urban planning model called “Linear Continuous System,” which would establish linear, decentralised cities running throughout Poland and the rest of Europe. From the Communist Bloc to the petro-capitalism of Saudi Arabia, the linear city is an enduring dream.
  • How do you camouflage a factory so it’s invisible to enemy planes? By building a fake residential neighborhood over top, of course. During World War II, Boeing and Lockheed Martin facilities in Southern California and Seattle were disguised with the help of Hollywood set painters and scene designers who used camouflage netting, burlap, and chicken wire to create artificial subdivisions on top of factory roofs.
  • In search of a clear explanation of how, exactly, textile looms came to influence early computer punch cards, we came across this clarifying sequence in historian James Burke’s 1970s TV series Connections. Holy moly what a great show. We were also happy to discover there are plans in the works to produce a new season.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • In rural New Zealand, [editor's note: this website is silly old and may ask your computer to download Shockwave player 🤦‍♀️] Peter King made a name for himself both locally and internationally by producing small runs of lathe-cut acetate records in a tiny studio using two old BBC machines and a couple he made from scratch. Despite the extremely ramshackle setup, King made records for everyone from Acid Mothers Temple to the Beastie Boys.
  • Art instructor Bruce Edelstein has been running this extremely cool Grade 3 Chair Project for over 18 years. He gives students a brief to design and build chairs using only pinewood planks, and the results are fantastic.
  • Branch is an online magazine about tech and climate change. We were particularly taken by its design approach. The version of the website you see (e.g. high res, low res or just alt text for images) depends on the pressure on the grid and level of renewable energy where you are, highlighting the environmental impact of web design choices.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • We love this old fashioned razorblade sharpener that Spencer shared in 2021-03-01; it feels like a missing puzzle piece in a long-running conversation about disposability culture. King Gillette’s patented 1904 safety razor, with its thin replaceable blades, is often held up as the progenitor of the modern scourge of disposability-as-a-business-model, but it turns out this isn’t exactly true. Gillette didn’t pursue disposability (and initially offered resharpening services) but it was eventually forced by what Cameron Tonkinwise describes as the trilemma of “sharp, cheap, durable”... with “durable” ultimately losing out.
  • Sales of DIY dentistry kits went up 87% in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic. From a simple aspirin all the way up to the 7.6% of households that tried their hand at at-home tooth extraction, people have been taking things into their own hands.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • The Ever Given’s blockage of the Suez canal (truly ancient history, we know) highlighted how fragile the dependency-laden webs of international shipping can be, prompting analysts to ponder a future in which states weaponize choke points. Leftist organizers have been thinking about choke points for years from a different perspective, with projects like Empire Logistics and theorists like Charmaine Chua building knowledge and strategy around how workers and activists might weaponize choke points, ports, and logistics networks from below.
  • The Internet Archive’s approach to digitizing 78 rpm records is pretty cool — especially the tiny vacuum cleaner to get the grime of the discs, and the four styli used to record each song so you can pick which record player sound you prefer.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • Biomaterials like mushroom “leathers” show promise as replacements for animal leather and environmentally intensive faux-leather products. However, inconsistent tensile strength and fiber structure have been roadblocks for companies looking to scale or to compete with traditional leather products. Breakthroughs are starting to happen, though. For example, the team at MycoWorks has found that strategic automation and highly regulated growing trays have been the key to creating a stable, replicable mushroom leather product that meets industry requirements.
  • The 2021 Computer Mouse Conference was an incredible deep-dive into a specific piece of computing hardware and its culture. We sadly missed the mouse teardown workshop, but Emma Rae Bruml’s “The Dada of All Demos,” a performance lecture about the computer mouse, gives a taste of the kind of multi-modal nerdary the conference involved.


Architectural model of Oskar Hansen’s Linear Continuous System.

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