2022-10-10 6 min read


Notes, 2022-10-10.

Since attending a church service for the first time in almost a decade, I’ve been thinking about the sublime. In its earliest usage the term described “noble diction, and dignified word arrangement,” but the concept took on new and more complex meanings as we discovered more of the world. English critic John Dennis, widely credited with co-inventing the modern concept of the sublime, recalled his experience crossing the Alps in the late 17th century as pleasurable, but "mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair." That meaning of the sublime greatly influenced Romantic art, from the tempest of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog to the nightmarish horror of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son and beyond.

Most of us have been rendered speechless, even frightened, by something truly awesome in nature. What about the objects we make ourselves? They can be sublime too. Throughout history, inspiring awe, veneration and fear would have been front of mind for the people building our places of worship. These same ideas – awe, veneration, and fear – feature prominently in modern starchitecture, and one can imagine that every person working on megaprojects (from bridges, to dams, to highways) sees themselves as working towards a grand, transcendent goal. I think we can go even further: even when we don’t intend it, many human creations go on to acquire the quality of the sublime. Despite being borne of our own minds and bodies, they become things we cannot ever truly know. It is in that space, beyond rational understanding, that we encounter the sublime.

-Mateo Szlapek-Sewillo

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was a series of 3D printed maps visualizing San Francisco’s water infrastructure. In the Members' Slack, the new #general-questions channel has quickly become the most popular. Whether you're looking to buy a robot arm or an induction range, the answers keep coming.

Planning & Strategy.

  • Nowa Huta ("New Steelworks”) is the easternmost suburb of Kraków, Poland. But it is better known as one of only two planned socialist realist settlements ever built (the other being Magnitogorsk). Originally intended to house workers for the nearby Vladimir Lenin Steelworks, Nowa Huta became a demonstration of the superiority of the ideology which inspired it. But even an ideology which sought to make a new world could not completely remove traces of the old. Any built environment is just the freshest text on an already-crowded manuscript (a palimpsest), not a blank slate. Construction of Nowa Huta required the disruption of an area which had been continuously settled since the Neolithic Era, and its streets and buildings bore unmistakable Renaissance and Classical influences. Today, Nowa Huta is a draw for tourists from around the world, and a glimpse of the physical manifestation of a utopian ideology.
  • Spend enough time online, and you’ll read about some very baroque conspiracy theories. The most interesting one I’ve discovered recently concerns the Tartarian Empire, a supposedly glorious civilisation which emerged from North Asia and built majestic cities and infrastructure until its fall. The actual conspiracy, believers allege, is that the existence of the Tartarian Empire has been nefariously erased from books and photos. Reading this article, which calls the theory the “QAnon of Architecture,” prompted me to ask several questions, including “what the hell?” and “who would believe this?” But there is another, deeper question: can something which never actually existed be sublime? In the same spirit, The Glory of the Empire is a “history” of another empire which only existed in the imaginations of author Jean d’Ormesson and his readers.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • Travel half an hour outside Kraków, and you arrive at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, an underground city of salt. Though salt has been harvested there since the 12th century, it’s the more recent renovations that catch the eye. Giant salt-crystal chandeliers illuminate the underground complex, while salt-carved monuments, including some by contemporary artists, decorate chambers. Beyond its beauty lies something darker. Why does a mine need four separate chapels? Why is there a functioning Catholic church almost two kilometres underground in a Papuan mine? For the workers who risk their lives deep underground, faith stands in for the earthly protection they were denied.
  • After his schooling had been prematurely ended by the Spanish Civil War, Justo Gallego Martínez entered a Trappist monastery as a novice. He was forced to leave the monastery in 1961, before making his final vows, because of a bout of tuberculosis. Denied the opportunity to give his life to God in more conventional ways, Martínez spent 60 years single-handedly building a cathedral out of scrap and salvage in his village near Madrid. This profile of Martínez tells the story of an unusual man, motivated by forces I can’t understand. His final request, to be buried in the crypt he built with his own hands, was refused by local authorities on hygiene grounds.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • Aboriginal Australian culture is the world’s oldest continuous cultural lineage. Their connection to the land is unbroken and their knowledge of it is boundless. One example of that knowledge is the wisdom of indigenous fire management practices, which have spared the fire-ravaged continent on which I live from even greater disaster. Collaboration between scientists and Aboriginal rangers is an example of how traditional knowledge and modern science can combine to form something greater than the sum of its parts, and a story about how different ways of knowing can be legitimate, even if we don’t understand them.
  • I have an abiding interest in ancient technologies that we can’t replicate or decipher. While some are today generally believed to hold no great meaning (I’m looking at you, Voynich Manuscript) others continue to escape our understanding. Greek Fire was an incendiary weapon first developed and used by the Byzantines in the 7th century; it would apparently burn ferociously when in contact with water, and stuck to anything it touched. Its composition remains a subject of debate to this day. Was it one of the mightiest and mysterious weapons ever devised? Or the object of some historical embellishment from loyal sources?

       In the same vein, the Baghdad Battery (so named because of its discovery in the Iraqi capital in 1936) is a fascinating glimpse into how history might have unfolded differently. When archaeologist Wilhelm König examined the five-inch-tall clay jars in the Baghdad Museum, he was amazed. He realised that the jars, which contained a vertical iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder, could have been batteries used for electroplating. What’s more, König dated these batteries to the third century BC. Although later experiments have concluded that they would not have been much use for either power generation or electroplating, they could have had other uses. Healing, perhaps. Or maybe just for delivering a gentle shock to the unsuspecting.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • One of the few legacies of my (thankfully brief) teenage flirtation with libertarianism was reading I, Pencil. This compact essay uses as its framing device the observation that, in a modern economy defined by hyper-specialisation, no one person knows how to make so much as a pencil. The essay’s purpose? To teach the reader how markets disperse and decentralise knowledge, and in the process reprimand the “arrogance and futility” of central planners.
  • As a vegetarian who was once a vegan, I think a lot about how feeding the world requires the use of violence to convert animals into meat. Modern industrial farming goes several steps further still: its efficiency turns even living animals into near-objects, optimising them for our consumption through the use of steroids, calorie-rich diets, and selective breeding. This logic is why Thanksgiving turkeys have more than doubled in weight since the late 1920s, and why the average weight of US beef cows increased by almost 30 per cent between 1975 and 2009.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

I can’t be the only person perpetually amazed by the fact many of the digital connections we take for granted are largely enabled by a vast network of undersea cables. First built to transmit telegraphy data, today the global network of undersea cables spans half a million miles and connects every continent. But building critical infrastructure in an environment not conducive to human life, especially in international waters, presents several challenges. As this article from CSIS, a think tank, shows, the world’s undersea cables are highly vulnerable to sabotage by malicious actors.

This map of the world’s submarine cables stirs the same kind of awe in me. Its patterns mimic global shipping routes – indeed, it too is a record of exchange, but of data and experiences, not goods or people – and invite us to recognise the oceans for what they are: the earth’s default biome.


  • It was my bachelor party last weekend, and we played a game called trugo. Native to Melbourne, it’s a mix of lawn bowls and croquet, and may have been founded by the city’s interwar railway workers.
  • My favourite historical conspiracy theory is the Phantom Time Hypothesis, whose author asserts that 297 years of the Early Middle Ages never happened.

How would you warn visitors of nearby nuclear waste 10,000 years from now? Breed cats which change colour near radiation.

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