2023-08-07 9 min read

Notes, 2023-08-07

Notes, 2023-08-07
A reefer in the Kuantan Port Container Yard. Image via Wikimedia.

Last year, my partner and I bought our first house and became consumed by repairs, maintenance, and upgrades. Nothing is at risk of imminent collapse, so much of our time is spent researching and triaging the issues we need to address.

I find it hard to prioritize what problems to solve – in my life, in the world – when there is so much to work on. I generally want to solve the things that are immediately visible, rather than delve into the depths and tackle a problem that is out of sight, and functionally out of mind. So when we learned that we still had a lead pipe bringing water into our house, I was reluctant about getting it replaced. Instead, I proposed band-aid solutions: We could install filters, or rely on bottled water.

My partner eventually convinced me that it was worth doing it right – the health effects from bioaccumulated lead are not worth the risk. Last week, we brought in a team of contractors to dig up the garden, hammer a new pipe through the wall, and replace the pipe. And I’m trying to get more comfortable peering beneath the surface where insidious problems lurk. Even if I don’t like what I find, it’s better to know.


The most clicked link from last week's issue (~7% of opens) was the author's photos of the Schoharie aqueduct ruins. In the Members' Slack, we're hosting two events next week: an AMA with food engineer Larissa Zhou and a chat about Disney Imagineering with ex-Imagineer Colin Godbyjoin us!

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I’m not the only one who would prefer to ignore underground plumbing issues. In the US, there are 860 communities, with a total population around 40 million, whose wastewater is handled by combined sewers. In a combined sewer system, sewage from buildings – contaminated water from their bathrooms, kitchens, and laundries – is commingled with street runoff en route to treatment plants. These systems work pretty well, but during periods of heavy rain they can exceed their capacity and overflow, releasing raw sewage into waterways. For this reason, most sewer systems built after the mid-twentieth century have separate pipes for sewage (which is sent to wastewater treatment facilities) and street runoff (which is discharged into nearby bodies of water).

A few years ago the state of Virginia passed a law requiring the city of Alexandria to essentially stop dumping sewage into the Potomac River – something that the city’s combined sewer does after moderate rainfall. Instead of building new sanitary and stormwater sewer systems, they decided to build a massive tunnel system to collect water from their combined sewer overflows, storing and diverting it back to wastewater treatment plants. I really enjoyed this media-rich article about the project, which details the daily life of the construction crew and the incremental progress they make with the burrowing behemoth. In an interview, a worker talks about traveling all over the world to operate tunnel boring machines, saying, “It’s a way of life” and “There are no tunnels on your doorstep anymore, so you have to move to do this kind of work.”

While it isn’t a way of life I am likely to be initiated into, Bent Flyvbjerg had some actionable advice on tunnel boring in How Big Things Get Done: Rely on proven machine models (“technology is frozen experience”), and if possible, keep a spare machine on hand.


The Imagineering Story recounts the maturation of the business unit that builds Disney’s parks, and in doing so it also explains how Disney became a real estate developer. While Disney’s onsite hotels were once managed by other companies, in 1984 The Disney Development Company was spun out to develop and control hotels, resorts, and golf courses. (Later, in 1996, it was merged into Walt Disney Imagineering.)

The Swan Hotel in Orlando, Florida, designed by Michael Graves. Image via Wikimedia.

In-house property development was kicked off by Michael Eisner when he took the reins as CEO in 1984. He commissioned famous architects for bright and often bizarre postmodern buildings, meant to “(1) strive for historic authenticity and recreate historic buildings; (2) take a whimsical approach and exaggerate storybook images; (3) create subtle, abstract images; or (4) do all of these things.” Eisener came to call the style “entertainment architecture,” which is typified in the Michael Graves-designed Swan and Dolphin hotels in Orlando, and his Seven Dwarves-themed Disney Headquarters in Burbank.

The Team Disney Building in Burbank, California, designed by Michael Graves. Image via Wikimedia.

Most of the Eisner-era buildings aren’t to my taste – they’re now pretty dated, reminiscent of suburban shopping malls. But I do love the showpiece buildings Disney commissioned for its planned community, Celebration, Florida. There are all of these unexpectedly playful forms integrated within an idealized American town: For example, Celebration’s town hall is framed by a truly unhinged number of columns, and feels to me like a tongue-in-cheek play on the ubiquity of the neoclassical style in American civic architecture.

Town Hall in Celebration, Florida, designed by Philip Johnson. Image via Wikimedia.


In this impassioned argument for building new ways of relating online, Robin Sloan encourages us to “work with the garage door open,” declaring:

I believe it’s a time to explain as you go. Our “work”, in an important sense, is to get into each other’s heads; to blast out cosmic rays that might give rise, in other minds, to new ideas.

SOW Member Stewart Brand’s latest writing experiment lives up to this invitation, and is all about rolling up the garage door and inviting the world in. He’s drafting his new book, The Maintenance of Everything, in public on Books in Progress. The platform is somewhere between Google Docs and a well-produced blog, offering readers the opportunity to collaborate on the text through comments.

The chapter he’s currently working on is about vehicle maintenance. In one section, Brand recounts philosophical lessons from Shop Class as Soulcraft and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In another, he celebrates the repairability of the most popular cars of all time: the Ford Model T, the Russian-made Lada Classic, and (a favorite of the Whole Earth Catalog set) the Volkswagen Beetle. I particularly enjoyed his account of the competing design strategies that underpinned two of the first commercially successful cars: the economical Ford Model T and the costly Rolls-Royce “Silver Ghost.” The Model T was ubiquitous, and “the specialized knowledge needed to keep them running became common knowledge … anyone who tried to customize a Silver Ghost would probably screw up its tightly integrated perfection, so no one did.”

I am something of a resentful car owner, and it’s hard for me to accept that repair culture, which I love, is equally important when it applies to cars, which I do not. But most North American communities are built around cars, and owning one can be a vital part of participating in public life. Repairing them has a social justice angle, as demonstrated in this stunning essay about the Automotive Free Clinic, a pay-what-you-can auto repair shop in Alabama where volunteers labor to keep low-income residents on the road. It’s a model I know and love from DIY bike shops, and seeing it applied to cars underscored that repair is always a radical act.


Nicola Twilley’s 2012 essay on the coldscape chronicles the network that moves and stores perishable goods – or, as Nicola puts it, “the unobtrusive architecture of man’s unending struggle against time, distance, and entropy itself.” The piece covers the temperature-regulated depths of cheese caves (both natural and engineered), meat lockers, sushi “coffins,” and orange juice tank farms (which look like petrochemical tank farms). One key piece of the coldscape is the reefer: refrigerated shipping containers for moving produce. The reefer’s success is largely thanks to Barbara Pratt, a scientist hired by Maersk in the late 70s. Pratt tweaked airflow, humidity, temperature, and gas inputs for various fruits and vegetables, all while living aboard ships next to the cargo.

I was most taken with the banana ripening rooms; I once worked at a grocery store, and I remember the diagrams of banana ripeness hung up in the stockroom. I had assumed our harried pace to keep the shelves stocked with just the right stage of banana was the last step in a natural ripening process, but a lot of intervention happens when the fruit arrives at a store. Bananas are picked green, shipped overseas, and ripened near their final destination. The facility Nicola visited keeps its fruit at 17°C for five days before shipping, but can tweak the timeline by changing the temperature to adjust for peaks in supply and demand. Nicola has another article that drills deeper into the specifics of banana ripening, profiling the Banana Distributors of New York. But that’s just the tip of the banana-temperature-regulation iceberg: There are dozens of scientific papers on banana ripening, including Detection of Banana Ripening Stages by Deep Learning.


I haven’t made time to watch Oppenheimer yet, but I just finished reading John McPhee’s The Curve of Binding Energy and nuclear weapons have been on my mind. Written in 1974, the book profiles Ted Taylor, a physicist who designed small, nimble fission bombs at Los Alamos National Lab. Taylor became disillusioned with the arts of war and spent the later part of his career lobbying for more safeguards on fissile material and designing nuclear products for civilian use.

In 1958, Taylor and Freeman Dyson (of the eponymous Dyson Sphere) spearheaded Project Orion, a nuclear explosion-powered launch and propulsion system intended to make chemical rockets obsolete. The craft would have launched by detonating two thousand nuclear bombs:

Stored in cans, they would be dispensed one at a time down a shaft and through a hole at the bottom of the ship. For insight into the engineering of this mechanical operation, the Coca-Cola Company was consulted with reference to the technology of its coin-operated Coke machines. Apparatus of the Coke machine type would move the bombs out of storage bays and set them up at the head of the shaft. Then they would be blown out of the ship by compressed nitrogen and detonated about a hundred feet [30.5 m] below.

Orion never got off the ground – besides the risks from fallout, the novel vehicle had myriad design challenges. In 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty forbade nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and in outer space (although, not underground), and Orion development wound down. All nuclear explosions were eventually prohibited by the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, although it has not been ratified by every nation.

Detecting nuclear explosions is a key piece of enforcing the bans. This video gives an overview of the evolution of detection technology. One key indicator of an atmospheric nuclear explosion is a double flash of light. The light from the fireball is briefly blocked by the shockwave emanating out, and measuring the two illumination peaks can confirm that the explosion was indeed nuclear. Analyzing the difference between the two peaks can also help determine the explosion’s magnitude and altitude. Early systems used instruments with photocells positioned around potential targets to sense the distinctive double flash. Today, satellites make up the Global Burst Detection system and triangulate optical, electromagnetic and X-ray signals to detect nuclear explosions.


Paul Hallows’ illustrations blend infrastructural landscapes – shipping containers, tower cranes – into seamless repeating patterns.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks also to Joe and Xavier for links, and to Daemon for insisting we replace our lead pipes.

Love, Hillary

p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

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