2021-12-06 6 min read


Notes, 2021-12-06.

Just north of San Francisco, a warehouse perched right at the Sausalito bayfront hides a remarkable relic of pre-digital hydrology: The Bay Model. This 1:1000 scale working hydraulic model represents the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta System, covering a sprawling 90 x 120 meters. Kelly visited recently and was thrilled at the epic size and scope, and the gush and whirr of the motors that power the flow of water through a regular tidal cycle.

Built in the early 1950s by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bay Model studied the potential impact of a proposed pair of dams in the San Francisco Bay (testing proved that the dams weren’t viable) and was subsequently used to study impacts of the deepening or realigning of various channels.

Computer simulations of the Bay and its tides started to replace the Bay Model’s function in the 80s, and it was eventually relegated to the status of public education exhibit. While digital tools no doubt blow the Bay Model out of the water when it comes to convenience and precision, experiencing the low-tech installation complete with its chlorinated odor and stagnant backwaters provided an unexpected and embodied appreciation of the interconnected nature of the Bay’s watersheds and flows.

-Kelly Pendergrast, Anna Pendergrast

The most clicked link from last week's Tool Guide issue (~16% of opens) was our very own lab notebook; use code `DIAGRAM` to take 20% off of your own lab notebook today. In the Members' Slack, we've been tracking the Cherry Street South Bridge as it floats along the St. Lawrence River towards its final destination in Toronto.

Planning & Strategy.

  • Watching this guy narrow down the age of an old globe is pretty impressive — he pegs the date within a two-month period based solely on the names of countries and whether they had gained independence. Dating globes is a whole thing. The complex geopolitics of the 19th and 20th centuries meant world maps were constantly becoming outdated — for example, a globe made in 1989 to reflect the name change from Burma to Myanmar would soon be out of date when West and East Germany merged to become Germany in 1990.
  • The Summit supercomputer in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was designated as critical infrastructure at the beginning of the pandemic, ensuring researchers could use its massive computing power to solve problems related to COVID-19. Keeping Summit running requires a whole bevy of people to ensure its 9,468 CPUs and 27,756 GPUs and 298 km of cable stay cool, dry, and functional. Keeping those workers safe from COVID-19 became a vital part of ensuring the supercomputer could continue its 200 quadrillion operations per second.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • When a reviewer claimed that Ursula Le Guin “carefully avoided” technology in her books, the visionary sci-fi author pushed back in this short essay (which she called a rant) on technology:
Technology is the active human interface with the material world... We have been so desensitized by a hundred and fifty years of ceaselessly expanding technical prowess that we think nothing less complex and showy than a computer or a jet bomber deserves to be called "technology" at all. As if linen were the same thing as flax — as if paper, ink, wheels, knives, clocks, chairs, aspirin pills, were natural objects, born with us like our teeth and fingers — as if steel saucepans with copper bottoms and fleece vests spun from recycled glass grew on trees, and we just picked them when they were ripe.

We love this reminder that our human-built surroundings are an accretion of once-advanced technologies. Each new development bakes in a new set of affordances, habits, and ways of being in the world.

  • Of course, hi-tech is not always the best tech. Chilean chefs in the sunny Atacama desert are using solar cooking boxes to stew meats and bake bread in their restaurants. The glass-topped insulated boxes capture and retain heat — think of a car interior on a hot day. Chile’s Solar Research Institute has also put together a video tutorial (en español) for building solar cookers, so anyone can construct their own sun-powered oven at home.
  • Anna’s favourite kitchen appliance is the Wonderbag, a soft insulated container that acts like a slow cooker without the electricity — just bring a pot of food to the boil and fasten the top to keep the heat in. Affectionately called the tomato in her household due to its colour and shape, Anna uses it to cook rice, stews, proofing bread and more. The Wonderbag was developed in South Africa and aims to address humanitarian and environmental problems by reducing the need for fuel and reducing the time women spend cooking, often over open fires in unventilated spaces.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • Internet self-hosting is becoming more popular, in a niche kind of way, and is something we’re both interested in dipping our toes in the water with in 2022, starting by moving our newsletter away from a big corporate platform. Self-hosters are part of a wider network of folks working on DIY and community-built communications infrastructures, supported by convenings like Our Networks and Radical Networks.
  • Cleaning the 11 story glass dome that covers LA’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is an incredibly complex task requiring specialised staff — climbers who hang from suspension ropes and scrub the glass by hand before rinsing it with deionized water that air dries spotlessly. The dome’s glass panels are not uniform in size (there are 146 different shapes), and the panels overlap by 10 to 20 mm, tapered all the way around. To avoid the risk of pigeon poop on the freshly cleaned glass, the museum dispatches a trained hawk to soar above the dome and scare off other birds.

Distribution & Logistics.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • In New Zealand, the Swiss Cheese Model was used to explain the range of measures governments and communities use in combination to limit the spread of COVID-19. This short treatise on how complex systems fail explores the vulnerabilities in socio-technical systems, and the idea that catastrophic failure occurs when small, apparently innocuous failures combine also resonated with us and speaks to the frequent failure of pandemic response policy.
  • Instead of using thermal paste to transfer heat away from your PC’s CPU, what happens if you use a marshmallow? Or how about cheese? Brave TikToker Adam Yee reports back from his increasingly-sticky workshop.
  • When Anna worked at a produce stand in Vancouver, she was visited by Measurement Canada officials who used a series of standardised weights to verify that the scales were accurately calibrated. It was a weird experience to watch people interact with the scales in such a forensic, official manner, when Anna would usually give them little to no thought when ringing up potato purchases. The weight and measurement of consumer products is regulated around the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s free from politics and oddities. For example, until 2008, loaves of bread in the UK had to weigh 400 g or multiples thereof. Earlier this year, Boris Johnson announced that UK businesses will once again be able to use pounds and ounces after 20 years having to weigh produce in kilograms under EU regulations. This wasn’t the first time Johnson had discussed the issue; in 2019 he connected measurement to patriotism and traditional values, proclaiming, “We will bring back that ancient liberty. People understand what a pound of apples is. There will be an era of generosity and tolerance towards traditional measurements.”


These tiny geometric log houses are built by the bagworm caterpillar reinforcing its silk cocoon with pieces of twig, leaves and other plant matter.

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