The corner store closest to Anna’s house is a welcoming but baffling place — the kind of establishment where stuff is piled everywhere and you might find broccoli in the drinks fridge. Usually, this haphazard arrangement is charming. But last week, during New Zealand’s most recent Covid-19 lockdown, a trip to the corner store to pick up some groceries felt stressful and chaotic — when you can’t find what you’re looking for, making a quick entry and exit while keeping a covid-safe distance is a challenge. Anna left the store in a panic with only half the things she needed.
This got us thinking about the taxonomies and organizational schema that structure the spaces we move through: libraries, streaming sites, book indices, and of course supermarkets. When the usual organizing principles go off-kilter, either by happenstance or by design, you get what Shannon Mattern described as ontological chaos — category confusion that disturbs or surprises. As Mattern points out, this can be thoroughly entertaining. However, in times of stress or crisis, we’re more appreciative than ever of the ordering logics that help us navigate through space and find what we’re looking for. Sometimes you just want the broccoli in the veggie bin where it belongs.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~14% of opens) was an overview of the diverse array of small vehicles used in Tokyo. This past weekend, Members of The Prepared met up to tour Shawinigan-2, a keystone of Quebec's expansive hydroelectric infrastructure.
Planning & Strategy.
- A great article about rock climbing route setters, the “peculiar group of introverted movement engineers—the ragtag remnants of society’s outliers” who set the courses at sport climbing competitions. Setters are responsible for planning and installing the complex arrangements of foot and hand holds on each course’s plywood climbing wall. Their challenge lies in having to design technical courses that push climbers’ abilities while keeping it achievable and making them spectator-worthy.
- Designers John Galliano and Tomo Koizumi were given carte blanche to rework a piece from the other's couture collection for the latest edition of Vogue. There’s a video of the process, too. It’s particularly mesmerizing and terrifying watching Koizumi’s tulle wedding dress — which would have taken countless hours to construct — be picked apart strip by strip, the materials meticulously rolled and measured, and eventually knitted back together into a giant sweater.
Making & Manufacturing.
- The Apollo program’s Guidance Computer used core rope memory, a technique of physically weaving software into high-density storage. Most of the weaving was done by women who honed their expertise in the textile industry.
- r/MYOG, or Make Your Own Gear, is one of Kelly’s favorite Reddit communities. Alongside the usual ultralight backpack designs and comparative analyses of silnylon versus cuben fiber, we spotted these steel arm supports fashioned by a lower limb amputee, which help him hike over rugged terrain using his hands.
- This comprehensive review of dental implants includes a detailed overview of the properties of bioimplants and a history of materials used to replace teeth — from implants used in ancient Egyptian and South American civilization to the metals, ceramics, and polymers used today.
- The brief, confusing, history of foam packaging featuring Dow Chemical, Dart Manufacturing, and the great styrofoam nomenclature debate. We got deep into the specifics of expanded versus extruded polystyrene during our recent deep dive on Geofoam.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- In an act of guerilla public infrastructure, artist Richard Ankrom made and installed a fake freeway sign to help drivers navigate a confusing Los Angeles interchange. When Caltrans found out, they didn’t press charges — they decided to leave his handiwork intact. This extremely early-2000s video detailing Ankrom’s covert operation includes a great breakdown of the largely manual process he went through to fabricate the signs and make sure they were up to spec.
- While street signs have exact specifications for size, shape, and colour, manufacturing methods vary from place to place. In New York City’s own sign shops, stop signs are screen printed in batches. In smaller municipalities, signs can be made to order, with the unmissable red produced using an adhesive film. In both cases, the production is done almost entirely by hand.
Distribution & Logistics.
- The all-encompassing hodgepodge of the supermarket “ethnic” aisle is its own kind of ontological chaos, smushing together everything from gochujang to garam masala in a way that feels antiquated and even slightly racist. Unfortunately, getting rid of the ethnic aisle is a bigger challenge than you might expect.
- This timelapse of a Rammstein stage set being erected illustrates the immense setup required for large-scale stadium shows. Over seven days, crews cover the entire field with flooring, bring in cranes to build scaffolding structures, drive endless full-size trucks of gear into the stadium, and prepare a whole lot of pyrotechnics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some bands take two versions of the stage on the road so crews can leapfrog venues, allowing shows to be staged more frequently.
- Northwestern University's Transportation Library has an incredible Instagram with scans of historic transit schedules, highway planning reports, and more.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- It’s wildfire season in California, so we’re keeping an eye on the air quality index. Purple Air, the popular low-cost optical sensor that people use to monitor air quality in their own backyards, tends to provide readings that are higher than the more accurate AirNow numbers sourced from EPA-mandated regulatory-grade sensors. This NPS report analyses the discrepancy and describes how PurpleAir data can be corrected with a linear regression model to bring it in line with EPA readings.
- Weather measurement tends towards the dry and technical, but the 200-year-old Beaufort wind force scale is quite the opposite: it almost reads like poetry. Devised in 1805 by Admiral Sir Frances Beaufort, the scale describes wind force at sea using observations rather than measurement instruments. Reading the descriptions today reminds us that weather is experiential, situated, and subjective. “Force speed 0: Sea like a mirror / Calm; smoke rises vertically.”
- These decades-old videos of Herbie Hancock explaining a digital synthesizer and Björk opening up her TV are strangely soothing and make us want to find other examples in the “musicians explain technology” genre.
- The Conet Project is a CD box set released in the 90s featuring snippets from mysterious numbers radio stations, which were used for espionage communication. The CDs were a cult favourite, and seeped into the mainstream when Wilco used a clip in their song “Poor Places”. This article tells the story of this weird project and the numbers stations that started it all.