2022-08-22 6 min read


Notes, 2022-08-22.

I’m moving away from New Mexico, and I’ve been trying to memorize features of the landscape I know I won’t find elsewhere, like the low-slung, colorful industrial buildings in Albuquerque and the murky beauty of the fractured, over-allocated Rio Grande. I like living in a place where diverse industrial land use intermingles with agriculture, old residential neighborhoods, and the grooves of 300-year-old community-based water sharing infrastructures. I’ll miss driving by New Mexico Wool Grower’s, Inc. on my way to work, which often reminded me of the city’s connection to rangelands and waterways. Thinking about wool as a product of landscapes and ecosystems (and sheep, obviously, thank you sheep) fed into the way I think about the agricultural and extractive origins of building materials.

Woolgathering is also a word for the kind of mental roaming I do before writing down notes. Several of the threads running through this newsletter have to do with water, cloth, new ways of understanding industrial landscapes, and other interests gleaned from my surroundings. Sheep’s wool, in addition to being great for sweaters, is also an effective insulator for buildings. I hope some of the links below can likewise be put to more than one use.

-Natasha Balwit-Cheung

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~9% of opens) was a deck of cards for planning how to split domestic responsibilities. In the Members' Slack, we did some housekeeping and reorganized all of the channels to make the community easier to navigate. There are now dedicated spaces for talking about bikes, woodworking, science, home renovations, and celebrating small wins!

Planning & Strategy.

  • I think a lot about the role of imagination in equipping institutions and infrastructure to deal with changes ahead. Those responsible for handling geographically distributed crises in a world of fluctuating water supplies, drought, and floods will be pushed to respond creatively, and to me Nadia Christidi’s research on the imaginative capacity of planning institutions is instructive. She looks to collaborations between artists and policymakers or scientists for fresh ideas, like a stormwater catchment project riding the line between public and private property, or salt-based building materials made from the briny byproduct of desalination. Also, Rosa Lyster’s work on water is some of my favorite literary writing about infrastructure for the way she shows how water lives in the imagination of national identity and existential vulnerability.
  • We know urban manufacturing strengthens local economies, and we know the history of industry includes devastating and unjustly shared environmental consequences. But a new book argues that the way industrial land uses relate to people and space has been neglected compared to environmental and economic relationships. And many newer kinds of advanced manufacturing can be done more cleanly and safely, drawing people into industrial areas instead of pushing them out. Developing centrally located industrial areas to better relate to the people and spaces around them – for example, by encouraging residential dwellings and street-level commerce alongside production facilities – could counter the pressure to convert those areas to upscale housing and displace existing manufacturers. The authors explain, “like farmland, industrial land is hard to reclaim once replaced by other functions.”

Making & Manufacturing.

  • Lately, I’ve come across some people making nice things on 80’s home knitting machines. If you have one and want to turn it into a “knitting network printer” to make a giant woolen star map like this Australian artist did, here’s a run-down of the process.
  • An invention near and dear to my heart and tastebuds: engineers at Sandia Labs have tested out roasting green chile with concentrated solar power. It’s an emissions-free alternative to the propane-fired roasters tumbling deliciously in every other parking lot in New Mexico come September. I can almost smell the chile in the air.
  • In 1988, Issey Miyake’s design studio and technicians from a factory in the Tohoku region of Japan pooled efforts to perfect a new type of pleated garment. Issey Miyake: Making Things describes the breakthrough: rather than cutting and sewing from material that had already been pleated, Miyake had garments cut and assembled at two-and-a-half to three times their final size. “The material is then folded, ironed, and oversewn so that the straight lines remain in place. The garment is then placed in a press between two sheets of paper, from where it emerges with permanent pleats.” Miyake described the process with delight to a friend on the phone: “The blouses emerge like big muffins from the oven.” Miyake was a startlingly original, deeply imaginative designer (and behind Steve Jobs’ black turtlenecks); he passed away on August 5.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • The artist Theaster Gates shared some of the intention (along with “design hours, management time, skilled labor, cash, prayer and belief”) behind his current project restoring a former hardware store. Artworks related to the project were on display last summer in Chicago in the show How to Sell Hardware.
  • Dust that accumulates on solar panels over the course of a single month can reduce a system’s output by 30%. To prevent this, about 10 billion gallons of water a year go toward cleaning solar installations, often trucked into deserts (where many of the world’s largest solar power installations are located). About 10% of the operating costs of solar installations can be attributed to cleaning with water. To address the problem, researchers developed a lab-scale prototype that “uses electrostatic repulsion to cause dust particles to detach and virtually leap off the panel’s surface, without the need for water or brushes.”

Distribution & Logistics.

Skill is often thought of as a quality that resides within a person, cobbled together from some combination of experience, education, and talent. But skill is also a political quantity, and sometimes one totally untethered from ability. Migrants working in construction in Qatar (where 90% of residents are immigrants) are sorted and channeled into different social and economic roles not by legal distinctions or visa categories, but based on their labels as skilled or unskilled. In Doha, “workers described as unskilled are prohibited from living in and circulating in most of the city – the city that they in fact built – and are relegated instead to labor camps in the surrounding desert.” The label has implications for almost every aspect of a worker’s experience, from social and physical mobility to the rights to dignity and safe working conditions.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • Mexico City today is a vastly different weight on the ground than the 14th-century city built among five saltwater and freshwater lakes mediated by dikes and dams. The soft soil of former lakebeds is sinking at different rates across the city, creating fissures that split and grow violently during earthquakes. A poignant essay connects the city’s geological undercurrents to the residents living with fear, sickness, and vertigo they attribute to the trembling and crumbling around them. It details a 2005 gravimetric study as a thought experiment to put the problem into perspective. Picture a rectangular column of soil, one meter by one meter by 70 meters deep, extending from the surface of the ground to the bottom of the clay layer beneath the city. “Were this imaginary column put into an oven at 105 degrees Celsius for four days — the method for evaluating a soil’s ‘gravimetric water content’— after the water had evaporated, we’d find less than seven cubic meters of soil left. And then once the air pockets that had held that now-evaporated water had collapsed, there would be just over half a cubic meter of solid material remaining.” It’s no wonder that a city built on soil that is basically hollow has tilting buildings, fissures, potholes, and people unsteadied by them.
  • There’s a lot of lively and necessary discussion right now about the role of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) in climate change mitigation. The more carbon dioxide is drawn down from the atmosphere and sequestered, the better. But concerns have been voiced about the feasibility of CDR at the necessary scale and some worry that overemphasis or misplaced hope will dilute efforts toward the arguably more critical task of reducing emissions. I found these principles for thinking about just climate policy and carbon dioxide removal. In brief:

  • Don’t Forget the Long Game - Think of carbon dioxide removal as an important piece of a long-term strategy with rapid emission reduction at its core.

  • It’s Not All About the Carbon - Consider factors outside of cost and total carbon sequestered: for some projects, positive impacts beyond carbon sequestration could justify adoption independently of the climate benefits. In others, social or environmental damages could outweigh climate benefits.

  • Split, Don’t Lump - Distinguish between different practices and policies going by the same name. For example, “spreading finely ground basalt on cropland and scattering olivine pebbles on coastal seabeds both count as enhanced weathering, but the former requires far more energy to grind the rocks.”

  • Don’t Bet It All on Being Right - Accept the likelihood of unexpected outcomes. Overreliance on CDR in climate models puts future generations at risk if, for whatever reason, large-scale CDR systems fail to emerge or work the way we need. Neglecting CDR in long-term plans also puts future generations at risk by delaying research, development, and buildout we may desperately need.
  • Who Are the Engineers?” is an interesting short article on the related question of solar geoengineering, and argues for constructive and open-minded efforts to create an inclusive framework for research and governance.


  • Glacier mice are little balls of moss that move over ice in coordinated herds, and we don’t really know why.
  • Isa Toledo’s dub videos are little snippets of drama and humor, an afternoon snack for the ears.

Museum logistics make and unmake art through conservation, storage, display, and circulation.

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