Scope of Work

27 Mar. 2023
Notes, 2023-03-27

When I explore infrastructure sites, I am filled with a mix of exaltation and terror. In 2018, a friend took me through the Port of Oakland on his sailboat, where we watched a container ship unload. It made me acutely aware of just how small I was: a mere speck of dust in the grand workings of some great machine. The sheer magnitude of it all – the boat, the oceans it traverses, the megaports, the millions of containers, and on and on back to the mines where ore is extracted – sprawled beyond my comprehension, inspiring a creeping horror.

Facing the goliath manifestations of industry is an invitation into the sublime. The 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke called the sublime a state of suspended motion, inspiring awe mixed with horror. When looking at an object as large as a container ship, one’s mind is overcome by its bewildering scale; all other thoughts are pushed aside. That evening, as the APL Columbus filled my view entirely, it also filled my mind entirely. Since then, thinking through what it all means – the movements of any given ship, the trade flows that direct it, the bilge water and exhaust – has more or less consumed my life.

Industrialization spans the globe like a vast Rube Goldberg machine, producing an ever-increasing volume of stuff. I am ambivalent about this – the products and systems we build are incredible, but they are also ingrained with our folly. Writing about these tensions helps me make sense of them. I can profile a shipping company, or research which countries buy and sell a commodity, and piece by piece keep that creeping fear at bay.

-Hillary Predko

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~8% of opens) was a story about a fitness equipment manufacturer that managed to fulfill a 500+ metric ton order for the US Army in mere months. In the Members' Slack, James asked Bing's chatbot what exactly community members should call ourselves. It suggested Scopers, Scopists, SOWmates, and workies. 🤔 We'll keep workshopping it.


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

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In my schools and city, recycling was framed as an easy way to help the environment – the way we could all do our part. But that's far from the whole picture. As Adam Minter details in Junkyard Planet, recycling is also a global commodities market and the big players, like municipalities and the recycling companies they contract, are motivated primarily by business interests. This isn’t a bad thing – if recyclers can make money, things get recycled. This frame has been clarifying, opening the black box of the blue bin.

When I took that trip to the Port of Oakland in 2018, I was researching Operation National Sword, a Chinese policy that upended the global recycling industry. Prior to 2017, China was the largest importer of scrap material from North America and Europe. Recyclable materials collected from city streets were baled, containerized, and shipped to China. National Sword effectively ended this. Some materials are technically still allowed, but strict contamination guidelines make it nearly impossible for materials recovery facilities (known as MRFs, which rhymes with Smurfs) to export commodity recyclable materials to China.

Domestic concerns about unregulated recycling had sprung up in China, attributed by some industry professionals to the documentary Plastic China. The film detailed grim conditions at a small recycling plant and went viral before being scrubbed from the Chinese internet. After National Sword was implemented, North American and European MRFs struggled and often failed to find markets for the materials they collected, leading to a wave of articles about recyclables being landfilled. That same framing I had learned in school – that recycling is first and foremost an environmental act – led many to interpret this as evidence that recycling had outright failed.

The market did adjust, but change takes time. In the intervening years, the loss of the most popular export destination has forced major shifts in the industry. This OECD report on the plastic scrap industry describes a complex market, where Southeast Asian countries have emerged as the largest export destinations, and scrap trade between OECD countries has increased. Further, National Sword kicked off major investment in domestic recycling capacity in the United States. American MRFs have invested heavily in automated systems to separate materials more effectively – like these optical sorting robots, which use machine vision to identify and separate materials.


Growing up in the 90s, computers had already embedded themselves into the home. Each new machine in my house inevitably outperformed the previous model wildly. By the time I learned about Moore’s Law as a teenager in the aughts, cutting-edge chips had about 100 million transistors, up from a few thousand in the 70s. The upward swing of computing power has permeated the world around me so seamlessly, I accepted Moore’s Law as some fundamental physical truth, as unyielding as the laws of thermodynamics.

Of course, this is not the case. I am enjoying how Chip War focuses on the process engineering and business decisions that enabled fabs to fit more transistors on chips. In discussing Charles Sporck, a GE engineering manager turned Fairchild manager, author Chris Miller writes:

In an industry full of brilliant scientists and technological visionaries, Sporck's expertise was in wringing productivity out of workers and machines alike. It was only thanks to tough managers like him that the cost of computing fell in line with the schedule Gordon Moore had predicted.

I was surprised to learn just how early semiconductor manufacturing expanded overseas: Sporck spearheaded a Fairchild facility in Hong Kong in 1963! The industry globalized “decades before anyone had heard of the word,” seeking lower labor costs to keep the price of chips down. While there are ongoing national security concerns about the lack of domestic fabs today, Gordon Moore’s 1965 prediction might not have become Moore’s law without those early production decisions.

Gordon Moore was a pillar of the semiconductor industry. He was one of the "traitorous eight," who in 1957 left Shockley Semiconductor to found Fairchild Semiconductor, and he went on to found Intel in 1968. He passed away last week at 94.


I enjoyed this virtual tour of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a repository co-managed by the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust, and the gene bank NordGen. Deep in the arctic, the vault protects the means to restart agricultural production in the event of a disaster. The concrete entrance juts out of the side of a mountain like a brutalist crystal growing from the tundra. It leads into a series of utilitarian spaces: a sparse entry room, a watertight access tunnel, a foyer dubbed “the cathedral,” and finally the three seed chambers.

The interior of the seed chambers is outrageously mundane, with simple steel shelving stacked with carefully labeled boxes that house over a million samples. While the facility has inspired conspiracy theories, I think the project is kind of utopian. At Svalbard, our best facsimile of the world’s plant diversity lays dormant. It’s a love letter to the future, a promise that we will care if a crop fails. Seeds, by their nature, are full of potential – and diligent volunteers from all over the world trek to the arctic to deposit seeds in the vault and shore up that potential for future generations.

Also see this database of the seeds, the Seed Vault’s Flickr page, and this episode of 99 Percent Invisible.


A new essay by Miriam Posner takes a deep dive into digitization and logistics and explores the implications of freight carriers’ goal to launch automated, crewless vessels. Huge containerships already run with tiny crews – for example, the 397 m, 14,770+ TEU Emma Mærsk operates with 13 crew members.

Posner points to seafarer abandonment as an example of freight carriers’ “willingness to cast aside human welfare in the pursuit of short-term profits.” If a ship accrues too much debt or is no longer profitable to operate, companies sometimes decide to abandon it, along with the cargo and seafarers who are left without wages or provisions. These incidents have been on the rise for the last five years, impacting 1,682 workers in 2022. In the last 20 years, unpaid wages to these workers have exceeded $40 million. Mohammed Aisha’s story is a particularly extreme example, as the Syrian sailor was trapped alone on a boat on the Suez Canal for four years after his ship was abandoned.

I clearly have a soft spot for container ships, but I would hate to see this category of maritime jobs eliminated. It’s always a joy to watch merchant marines talk about their work, and despite the aforementioned risks, it’s a great career. Mohammed, the man who was isolated and trapped for four years, took the captain’s exam when he returned home! He didn’t want to change industries; the sea was calling. The International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents seafarers, doesn’t see immediate cause for alarm. In a position paper on automation, they anticipate changes following similar patterns as past transitions in the maritime industry, and plan to focus on technology training for workers.


The desire to have perfect data, and thus the ability to make perfect decisions, is an old one. I am delighted by the optimism of Buckminster Fuller’s world peace game from the 1960s, which came to be known as just the World Game. The game is a utopian overhaul of war games (to be played on top of a huge Dymaxion map), and players collaborate to “make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

In 1972, Fuller founded the World Game Institute with several collaborators and ran workshops around the world; vintage photos of the game in action are pretty fun. Bucky imagined the game would be transformative – we’d all go in for spontaneous cooperation and world peace. Unfortunately, his predictions have fallen short, but this open access thesis paper tackles how to program a problem-solving engine like the World Game with contemporary data sources.


Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Also, a big thanks to Kate for recommending me to Pier 9, and to everyone at the pier who I worked with. If you’re ever able to take a few months to focus on the problems you’re most interested in, take the opportunity!

Love, Hillary

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

23 Mar. 2023
Product Design AMA with Studio Neat’s Tom Gerhardt

The Scope of Work Member community is a space for learning together and tackling the vexing challenges inherent in making physical things. The #general-questions channel is among the most active on our Slack, fielding queries – and supplying answers – about sourcing, prototyping, and material choices. As part of our commitment to supporting Members in their work, we recently launched community AMAs, in which interesting and accomplished Members share wisdom and expertise from their work experience.

Our first AMA was with designer and product coach Tom Gerhardt. In 2010, after the stratospheric success of their first product on Kickstarter, he co-founded the lifestyle brand Studio Neat with Dan Provost. Since then, Tom has designed over 30 products, from Apple accessories to a line of cocktail tools and, most recently, pens and notebooks. He has taught product development at NYU and hosts a podcast about product design and running an indie business. Today, he runs a product coaching practice that helps translate ideas into new consumer products and services. Tom spent more than two hours graciously sharing his perspective on product and business development, which we’ve condensed and lightly edited.

Eric Andersson: To what extent do you do your own design-for-manufacturing/assembly optimizations in your work, versus enabling your manufacturers to make and suggest those optimizations?

Tom Gerhardt: We basically do it all. Much of that work is at the very beginning when we are trying to figure out the constraints of a process or finish. I usually talk to the manufacturer (or just some random manufacturer in the space) and find out what the design constraints are. Sometimes I send a sketch or render to ask if it’s hard or crazy. DFM is from the very beginning. Because we have to do everything, we can’t just do some fancy ID-style sketch in a notebook and send it to the engineering team.

We make aesthetic and engineering decisions at the same time.

Come to think of it, I bet this has a lot to do with why the objects we design seem simple and honest. It’s all very functional/practical. One thing we’ve been conscious of as we grow a team is we want to stay very close to all the processes. I WANT to know all the engineering constraints. There is a very sweet satisfaction in designing a part that is efficient to produce. So much so that often I fantasize about producing parts in-house, but the downside of that is you are locked into a lot of overhead.

Product Design AMA with Studio Neat’s Tom Gerhardt
The polymer-ceramic compound for custom coatings on Mark One pens. Image credit: Studio Neat

George Cave: Your products place a big focus on the materials and finishes used, so I assume you spend a long time sourcing and researching materials and suppliers. Do you design the product first or the material first? i.e. - how often do you come across new materials or finishes (e.g. some of the Mark One limited editions spring to mind here) and work backward thinking "I love this, I wonder how I can make use of it"?

20 Mar. 2023
Notes, 2023-03-20

Located in lower Manhattan, the Oculus is a modern transportation hub with a soaring glass ceiling that is supported by a white steel-ribbed spine. Recently, as I walked through its pristine marble atrium, I noticed something completely out of place amongst the commuters: a massive red industrial machine, which a nearby plaque identified as a custom-built Teupen TL 156AX. Its purpose? To access the far reaches of the vaulted interior for maintenance.

As a hardware engineer, one of my primary responsibilities is to design systems that last. But no one can defy entropy. Steel will rust, plastics will break down, and electrical contacts will corrode. Depending on how much time and money you’re willing to spend, you can make a system incredibly reliable. But you also need to be prepared for when things go wrong, and sometimes that preparation is a complex system in itself.

When I started out designing, I just wanted to make things that worked. More and more, I notice the collective burden of maintaining systems year after year. The Oculus’ elegant atrium needs regular inspections, and inspecting it requires equipment which itself will require regular service — and so on. So I’m trying to be more thoughtful in building products that last, and finding sustainable ways to keep them going when they inevitably don’t.

-Sean Kelley

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~8% of opens) was about a woman who didn't realize her Tetris scores were world-class – and her surreal experience competing for the world record. In the Members' Slack, we're planning another #community-AMA on 2023-03-27 with traceability specialist Samantha Luc, focused on her experience working in bean-to-bar cacao sourcing (and tasting!) for high-end chocolate making.


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

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Princess by day, superhero by night: Limbitless Solutions is a nonprofit organization based at the University of Central Florida where research staff, faculty, and over 50 students are working to transform what bionics for children will look like in the future. In this case, it’s custom, 3D printed bionic arms with built-in electronics that children can swap in-and-out depending on their mood. Learn more here.



  • The story of how Sorinex moved mountains to fulfill a 500+ metric ton order of exercise equipment for the US Army’s new fitness test. The work came through an RFP bidding process that sought to contract the production of what equated to four years worth of output in six months. That meant Sorinex had to start purchasing before they got the job if they had any chance of completing it on time. Some of the challenges they faced included the fact that all parts had to be made in America, and raw material and manufacturer shortages required them to start up new factories.
  • I do a lot of sheet metal design work. When placing an order, it is important to know all of the inputs that lead to a final quote – including raw materials, machine time, and labor. For reference on raw materials, I look up the commodity prices of hot-rolled coil (HRC) steel. HRC steel prices have surprisingly doubled since December, which means parts are about to get more expensive. In the short term, I may be able to find a supplier who has excess supply from when prices were lower. This report attributes the increase to less supply from Canada and Mexico and a stronger-than-expected US economy.


  • LEDs are more energy-efficient and reliable than incandescent lights, but one lesser-known downside is that LEDs fade over time. This has become an issue on a number of my projects where different LEDs have different duty cycles, leading to undesirable variation in lighting intensity. One example was a remote control that had always-lit primary buttons that faded while the seldom-lit buttons stayed bright. The fading light is caused by micro-cracks in an LED’s crystalline substrate, which turn would-be visible photon energy into vibratory phonon energy, creating more cracks. Heat accelerates the process, so proper thermal management can help LEDs stay bright longer.
  • Millions of solar panels are beginning to reach the end of their useful life, and as this report details, the recycling market for solar panels is still nascent. California, which has the most solar installations of any state, only has one recycling plant. The report forecasts by 2050 that the number of end-of-life solar panels will approach the number of new ones being installed, creating a business opportunity to recycle the valuable precious metals. Further, keeping them out of landfills mitigates environmental concerns around burying e-waste.



  • While traveling in Kiawah, South Carolina recently, all of the new houses that I saw were being built with Andersen windows. Andersen is one of several suppliers that makes the hurricane-rated windows required in the region. Hurricane-rated windows are typically constructed with laminated glass panels: two layers of glass are stuck together with a polymer interlayer, resulting in an assembly that will remain intact even if the glass shatters. One of the tests for hurricane-rated windows is quite straightforward: a 2x4 is launched out of a cannon directly at the window. Formally called the large missile test, there is also a small missile test, where ten small steel balls are launched at the window, and finally, pressure testing to ensure the polymer can withstand more abuse. The national standard for window testing was created by Miami-Dade and Broward County after the destructive Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
  • One of the rigorous reliability tests we ran at my previous company is a Temperature Cycle Test. They are usually performed to MIL-STD-883, a military standard for testing electronic devices that I would run at condition A: -55°C to 85°C. However, with climate change contributing to more extreme temperatures, tests may need to default to more aggressive conditions – temperatures as low as -62°C were recently recorded in Siberia.


When you plug a USB device into your computer, the computer uses the device’s vendor ID and product ID to recognize it. People can also look up USB vendor IDs on the internet, which I did recently. The 0th USB vendor ID, 0x0000, belongs to USB-IF – the standard body which maintains the USB spec. This makes sense, but I was surprised to learn that the 1st USB vendor ID, 0x0001, belongs to Fry's Electronics. I grew up going to Fry’s, an unusual electronics store with kitschy tendencies. Despite an Alien-themed Fry’s being featured in the 2022 Jordan Peele film Nope, the company went out of business in early 2021.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks also to Skyler for links.

Love, Sean

p.s. - Building projects that last? I’d love to hear about them.

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

16 Mar. 2023
Rummage Sale Planet

There’s a good chance the things I donate to my local thrift store aren’t reused in my community. Instead, they’re likely bundled up in wholesale quantities and shipped around the world to markets in Africa, South America, and Asia. Adam Minter’s Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale traces the movement of goods across borders and oceans, from developed economies like the United States and Japan to their second lives in developing countries like Malaysia or India. From thrift store pickers hauling trucks of stuff across the southern border to be sold in Mexico, to bales of clothing from Canada being shipped to West Africa, Minter reports stories from the front lines of the secondhand market.

Adam is a columnist at Bloomberg, and also author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. He recently joined Scope of Work's Member’s Reading Group for an hour-long conversation about the global movement of secondhand goods. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.

Hillary Predko: One thing I appreciate about your writing is that you push back against dumping narratives – the idea that the global exchange of goods is characterized by developed countries offloading trash on developing countries. Agbogbloshie, in Ghana, for example, is commonly described in news articles as the world's largest e-waste dump. But, as you point out, no one is just smashing apart perfectly good electronics. Instead, locals are buying, refurbishing, and reusing electronics. If goods find their way to Ghana, somebody has purchased them, and somebody is selling them. There is work to do to ensure the final end-of-life step for goods is managed safely, but the dominant narrative overlooks the fact this is an active market. It seems like debunking the dumping narrative is something of a mission for you.

Adam Minter: It is, and I think there are a few reasons for it. I mentioned it in Secondhand, and I get into it much more on Junkyard Planet, but my family was in the recycling industry and I'm very defensive on the part of recyclers everywhere. My great-grandfather came to the US with nothing and started out literally scrounging on the streets of Galveston, Texas for rags to recycle. So there's that personal side to it, but there's another side, which is about who we give agency to.

I think the narrative that's been established takes away agency from African and Chinese recyclers – it just says, you're dumping garbage on these people. I don't think that's accurate, and I think there's something very unsettling about that kind of narrative. It takes away their agency, it takes away their humanity.

One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to say, look, these are not helpless natives, as they’re commonly depicted – they are business people who are doing things for themselves, for their families, for their towns. I mean, Wahab Mohammed in Tamale [a city in Ghana], he's very proud of the fact that the computers that he brings in from Vermont are refurbished and purchased by schools and hospitals in Tamale.

Rummage Sale Planet
Ibrahim Alhassan outside of his television repair shop in Savelugu, Ghana. A survey of electronics arriving in Ghana found 60% were functional, 20% needed repair or refurbishment, and 20% would go to waste after being used for parts. Image credit: Adam Minter.

That's not a story that you can tell if you deny agency to somebody like Wahab. In the last few years, there's been a lot of talk about restoring equity to narratives in the media. The book was started before that really took off, but it's always been on my mind that we have denied agency to the folks who do this work. I think that's a mistake, and it also just inhibits our understanding of how this trade works.

It's very easy to figure out that folks in this industry have agency. You just have to look at the shipping documents.

It's very easy to figure out that folks in this industry have agency. You just have to look at the shipping documents. It's not free to ship something to Ghana, and the price of shipping is picked up by the people in Ghana or in Pakistan. Just from a cost perspective, it makes zero sense to ship a container of old electronics from Vermont to get rid of something – somebody has to want to pay you to do it.

Sylvia: I want to build on that, Adam – the discussion of recognizing the agency of people in the industry reminds me of a point that you made a couple of times in your book about how colonialism, both past and present, enters into the secondhand market that we have today. And so my question is open-ended but I'm curious how we can use our relative power in that international hierarchy to affect positive change.

AM: One of the underlying themes in this book is who gets to define what is waste. Right now, the way that treaties, legislation, regulations, and narratives are being written, it's really Europeans and North Americans who are deciding what is waste and telling the rest of the world to follow our definition. That to me is very troubling on a number of levels. Firstly, just as a junkyard kid, because that's how I identify.

But I think anybody who goes to a thrift store, they embrace it. They enjoy finding treasure down at the Goodwill or Salvation Army, but something flips the moment we say, “That person in Ghana sees treasure where you see e-waste” – suddenly, the heels dig in. That to me is troubling because I really don't understand why folks in North America (or Brussels to be specific), should be deciding for an electronics trader in Tamale what is waste. It’s like saying, “You can't have this because in Brussels, we only use it for four years, and your decision to use it for seven years is the incorrect one.”

Rummage Sale Planet
A worker stands at a shoddy loom at Jindal Spinning Mills in Panipat, India. Here, woolen clothing and cloth is shredded and respun into shoddy blankets. Panipat is the only region in India that is allowed to import used textiles. Image credit: Adam Minter
13 Mar. 2023
Notes, 2023-03-13

One of things I like about having young children is that they ask simple questions with seemingly simple answers. That is, of course, until you try to answer them. While running a bath for my son recently, he asked, “Where does this water come from?” Excited by his curiosity, I launched into an explanation that featured reservoirs, water treatment, and pipes. It took me about 40 seconds to realize I had no real idea what I was talking about. I suspect he realized that too, though he humored me with a smile before diving into the bath.

The world is staggeringly complex. There are entire industries, tools, technologies, and ways of thinking that are hidden from me as I have no notion of why they should even exist. For me, Scope of Work is about struggling with that complexity – accepting that there is too much to possibly learn, but having a go anyway.

It turns out that I wasn’t that far off with my impromptu explanation of water treatment and distribution, but I left out the coagulation and flocculation bits. When I get my next chance to talk about water infrastructure with my kid, I’ll be ready.

-James Coleman

The most clicked link from last week's issue (7% of opens) was a video about the Plymouth Tube Company's cold drawn tubing process. In the Members' Slack, the #community-lunch crew has been chatting about prototyping musical instruments, the novel instruments created by Controllerist artists, and the beautiful browser-based synth interface embedded in Robin Sloan's latest short story.


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

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When Native American artifacts are returned to their rightful owners as reparations, they’re often in poor condition or even poisonous to the touch, as museum curators used arsenic as a preservative. Technology is becoming an important part of restoring artifacts to a usable state. Check out how Jay Loomis, a graduate student at Brown University, uses Fusion 360 and the Formlabs Form 3 to restore indigenous wind instruments.


While reading Secondhand in the SOW Members’ Reading Group, I learned about Speed Queen, a Wisconsin based manufacturer of long-lasting washers and dryers. Their machines are highly engineered for endurance and reliability, with the company advertising that they last around 25(!) years. Speed Queen is a subsidiary of Alliance Laundry Systems, the largest maker of commercial laundry equipment in the world.

I think the attempt to engineer long lasting appliances should be celebrated, but there are tradeoffs. Speed Queen machines score low in energy efficiency, for example. To achieve their fabled reliability, they eschew newer technology that might increase efficiency in favor of mechanical systems that are proven to last. This is an interesting tension I’d expect to see highlighted more as we figure out how to deal with climate change. In the Reading Group’s discussion with Secondhand author Adam Minter, he suggested that using life cycle energy analysis, a tool for understanding the full energy cost of a good through its lifetime, to strike the right balance:

Life cycle analysis is art as much as it is science, and everybody can have their own framework for doing it. But I think in general, the frameworks are useful and a positive thing to at least get us to think about the impact of our consumption.

While taking a course on AI recently, I learned about constraint satisfaction problems (CSPs). Basically, a CSP is a way of describing a problem in terms of its variables, and the constraints on those variables. If you pick values for the variables that meet all constraints, the CSP is “solved.”  The classic CSP is a sudoku puzzle where the squares are the variables. The player chooses values for each square (1-9) that satisfy the game’s constraints (a number can only be used once in a row, column, or subgrid). Some researchers have proposed approaching Life Cycle Analysis as a CSP. The idea is to model each stage of an object’s lifecycle as a set of variables and constraints, then use algorithms to minimize environmental impacts while satisfying cost, reliability, or performance goals. For appliances, one could imagine a CSP solver that warns a design engineer that the component they have added to the bill of materials will decrease durability, or surpass lifetime energy usage targets.

Structuring a problem as a CSP is broadly useful. The Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, for example, use CSP solvers to distribute viewing time to scientists – a fairly complex problem, as constraints like spacecraft orientation, timing, sun avoidance, and earth “occultations” need to be managed. Closer to earth, job shops can use these algorithms to schedule resource usage, allowing work to be completed on time.


I recently became aware of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, India. Completed in 2018, it is the world’s largest statue, standing at 182 meters tall (excluding its 58 m base). This is more than quadruple the size of the Statue of Liberty (42 m) and 50 m taller than the previous record holder, the Spring Temple Buddha in Henan, China (128 m). The Statue of Unity honors Vallabhbhai Patel, the first Deputy Prime Minister of India and an important leader in the nation’s independence efforts.

This video gives a good overview of the statue’s construction. It is basically a skyscraper shaped like a person, featuring two massive cores made from 210,000 m3 of concrete and a skeleton made from 27,000 metric tons of steel. The monument is so tall that it has two tuned mass dampers (which you can see in this video) to help mitigate wind and seismic activity in the area.

Indian sculptor Ram V Sutar meticulously crafted a 10 m reference design, which was 3D scanned and cast into 12,000 bronze panels by Chinese firm Jiangxi Tongqing Metal Handicrafts (whose foundry you can see here). This sourcing choice was not without controversy, as the monument was in part created to support a “Make In India” campaign.


Roughly twice a year, a utility worker drives up to my house and begins digging around in my front yard. Usually, a neighbor’s cable line has been accidentally cut and they need to locate the lines (which run under my yard) to make a repair. The workers are efficient and polite (as you would need to be when randomly digging holes on a stranger’s property), but it struck me as odd that this happens so often. Isn’t there some sort of utility map?

It turns out that there isn’t – at least not a reliable one. This great piece gives an overview of the “utility-locator” industry, which is responsible for finding the millions of miles of telecom, water, gas, and power lines that are located beneath the ground. You’ve no doubt seen the spray paint and flags that they place while doing their work. It seems that it is more cost effective to send these polite folks to locate the lines rather than maintain an updated map.

The industry even puts on an International Utility Locate Rodeo, where the most talented practitioners compete in 12-minute sprints to locate hard-to-find infrastructure. It's pretty fun to watch, in an umarell sort of way.


Like many of you, my family receives a pile of cardboard boxes on our doorstep each week, given our reliance on e-commerce to get things we “need.” When we get around to opening the boxes, we generally take them directly to our recycling bin. This has always felt a bit wasteful to me.

At one point in my career, I helped design the logic for how a distributor chooses which boxes, and how many of them, to use when shipping orders. The basic goal is to get the stuff to the customer without damage, while reducing the cost of doing so. One way to reduce cost is to ship fewer boxes, combining more items in a single container – but this slows down the shipping process. Partial orders need to be staged somewhere to wait for the remaining items, causing them to miss the complex symphony of carrier cutoff times, delaying delivery.

Another way to reduce cost is to reduce the amount of packaging material used – to choose boxes that fit their contents better. At one point or another, we’ve all received absurdly small items in oversized boxes, and wondered what the retailer was thinking. Ideally, each shipment would have a box that is perfectly shaped to its contents. But if you have more than a few SKUs, the combinations become intractable. It is surprisingly difficult to optimally pack a container, because the number of ways to combine items grows exponentially with each item you add. In computer science, the “bin packing problem” is considered np-hard, which basically means even computers have a hard time solving it.  Even if you settle for “nearly optimal,” your packing operations could slow to a crawl. There are machines that make custom boxes on demand (video here), but they are more suited to single, regular-shaped items that don’t require packing protection. You would also need quite a few of them to handle high velocity shipping environments, which would be costly in terms of equipment and space.

Amazon and others have invested significantly in machine learning to make packaging decisions in a more automated way. Another solution, of course, would be for customers to accept slower shipments, something that some retailers allow. But it is still tricky to find the right balance.

Related: This NY Times piece on cardboard manufacturing is beautifully photographed, and brought back fond memories of tackling these problems.


I really enjoyed the FIFA Men’s World Cup this past December, and followed the introduction of new tracking technology that would make offside calls more accurate, transparent, and ultimately less controversial. FIFA worked with a company called Kinexon, who also makes industrial asset tracking systems, to introduce a new sensor-laden ball that enabled “semi automated offside” decisions. Referees ultimately made the final call, but with a whole lot of assistance from sensor-powered AI.

Each ball contained an ultra-wideband sensor for precise positional data and an inertial measurement unit for detecting angular velocity and acceleration.  The sensor data (polled at 500 frames per second) was combined with player position data provided by a 12-camera Hawk-Eye system to help make the sometimes razor-thin decision about whether or not a goal should stand.

The system is supposed to be faster than traditional video-only review methods, and my sense is that it performed fairly well. Still, many soccer fans complain about the introduction of these tools as they feel it slows the game down. Without them, referees make the decision in real time; if they don’t raise their flag, the goal stands. Now, there is uncertainty because the Kinexon system can intervene. Referees sometimes get it wrong, but many prefer the occasional error to the specter of uncertainty.


  • A delightful story about a reporter who discovers his wife is one of the best Tetris players on earth.
  • A fascinating interview with John Carmack, the legendary video game programmer responsible for Doom and Quake. After leaving his CTO role at Oculus VR, he has turned his attention to, of all things, creating artificial general intelligence.
  • An ingenious commercial for the Nissan Leaf that imagines a world where everything is gas powered.
  • 20 mechanical principles combined in a useless Lego machine.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks specifically to Nick Fountain, Corey Menscher, and Stu Sonatina for directing me to cool parts of the internet.

Take care of yourself,

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

6 Mar. 2023
Notes, 2023-03-06

One of the more interesting aspects of hanging out around young kids is watching them fail at something. Kids are constantly failing at something, and the ways in which they might misunderstand a problem (and misapply solutions to it) are surprising, and enlightening, and funny.

But as with a lot of parenting, watching my own kids fail can be terrifying. Not because of any imminent danger, but because managing, accepting, and responding to failure are all skills that I wish I was better at.

When someone fails at something over and over again, we call that practicing. It’s a word that my kids seem to have an innate repulsion to, and which I know I avoided as a child as well. To practice is to admit that you could improve, and also that you desire to improve – things I’m sure I was afraid to admit as a middle schooler, and which aren’t exactly natural to me now. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that deliberate practice – failing at something over and over again with purpose – is one of the most gratifying things I can do.

-Spencer Wright

The most clicked link from last week's issue (5% of opens) was an essay on the importance and development of automobile paint. In the Members' Slack, we've been chatting about kettlebell logistics, using 3D printed lattices as RF lenses, and what's in store-bought chicken stock.

Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

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Xometry has unveiled a new quick turn injection molding service that offers quotes in as little as two hours and parts in as little as 5 business days. It's a great way to get high-quality molded parts fast; learn more and get a quote today. You can also get instant quotes on CNC machining, 3D printing, laser cutting, and more through Xometry's Instant Quoting Engine.


Ah, the number of things I’ve repeatedly failed at! Just this week, I’ve repeatedly failed to write this very newsletter – spending hours with the draft open, meandering from thought to introspective thought. Calling this “practice” feels like a rhetorical sleight of hand, but on days when I *don’t* do it, I’m left with a sense that I’m neglecting something.

In my experience, the life of a small business owner involves doing a *lot* of things that you are not good at. Most of my time is spent hovering right on the edge of failure on like four different work streams. To be fair, failure is relative to one’s own expectations, and I suppose the upside of small business ownership is that you get to decide what the business’s expectations are. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m the first person to associate “running a small business” with “constantly being just a little bit out of your depth.” I suppose that the natural question is whether the repeated failures of a small business owner result in some form of mastery over time. But again, mastery is relative to one’s expectations, and I suspect that for most small business owners it is more interesting to have built something that doesn’t break down while you’re on vacation than it is to have developed any specific management or operational skill.

In his infamous 2009 essay titled Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, Paul Graham suggested that “founders may increasingly be able to resist, or at least postpone, turning into managers, just as a few decades ago they started to be able to resist switching from jeans to suits.” The sentiment resonates with me, and recently I’ve begun to think that perhaps my pendulum has swung too far in the “chief dilettante” direction (a euphemism I use to describe my daily mix of activities) and not far enough in the “founding writer” direction. Then again, as Tom Vanderbilt explains in his heartwarming and energizing book Beginners, dilettante is derived from the Italian word dilettare to delight. And I suspect that I am not alone among small business owners who find some delight in their daily failures.

Notes, 2023-03-06
Three fillet brazed joints in various stages of finishing. 2010.


It’s been more than eleven years since I’ve done it on a regular basis, but the tactile feeling of cutting and finishing metal by hand is one that I can recall vividly. At the time I was building custom bicycle frames, and had decided for a few reasons (its relatively low risk; its niche nerd appeal) to use fillet brazing as my primary means of construction. Fillet brazing is a versatile method of joining metal, but it is used more in the high end bicycle industry than anywhere else that I’m aware of. To make a fillet brazed bicycle, you use a torch (typically oxygen-acetylene or oxygen-propane) to preheat your steel tubing and then melt and built up bronze filler rod on the joint. Once cooled, the finished joint is surprisingly strong: The Harris Group, which makes the popular low-fuming bronze filler rod that I mostly used, claims finished joint strengths around 480 MPa.

If you were just getting started building fillet brazed bicycle frames, you’d probably buy a bunch of 4130 steel tubing and start brazing chunks of it together to build up your skillset. Chances are, the tubes you buy will be marked “PLY/TUBE,” meaning that they were made by the Plymouth Tube Company, whose tubing is sold by a range of common industrial suppliers and marketed to motorsports and light aircraft manufacturers. They make tubing via cold drawing, meaning that the finished tube is made by pulling it really hard through a die (there’s a decent video of their process here; note that the tubes aren’t heated up during the drawing process). Specialty bicycle tubes (which are designed specifically for a particular location on the bicycle, a particular riding style, etc.) are made the same way, though they’re almost always butted or double-butted so that the wall thickness changes throughout the tube’s length. Of all the people I’ve spoken to in the bike industry over the years, Keith Noronha probably knows the most about specialty bicycle tubing; this interview with him, while not particularly riveting, has some nice footage of Reynolds tubing being butted.

When I was starting out, I’d cut (and cope) each tube using a hacksaw (a Bahco 325) and a series of mostly Swiss cut half-round files (like this one). Later I switched over to specialized coping fixtures mounted to a couple of old milling machines (primarily a fantastically burly Abene VHF3 universal, a Steinel SH4d horizontal, and a teeny little Benchmaster horizontal), but in retrospect I maintain a ton of appreciation for the hand work that I did early on. Hacksaws are cheap, versatile, and really quite good at cutting once you’ve learned how (smoothly) and when (on the push stroke) to apply pressure. Ditto with files, which inexperienced metalworkers will rub around aggressively but which are actually precise, effective, and satisfying to use once you’ve spent a couple dozen (hundred?) hours at the vise.Fillet brazing feels like TIG welding, but slowed down and zoomed in. You can see the process fairly well in this video – a single joint might take fifteen minutes to braze, after which it’s cooled and rinsed in warm water to dissolve the residual flux. Then, the hard finishing work begins. For seemingly arbitrary aesthetic reasons, the fillet on a fillet brazed bike is almost always ground, filed, and sanded until its surface is smooth and its edges lay tangent to the surface of the steel tubes. This process can take hours. Some framebuilders use a die grinder or handheld belt sander (both of which you can see here in the previous video) to finish their fillets, but I mostly used Swiss pattern files and rolled up pieces of sandpaper. It was grueling, and it destroyed my fingers, but the satisfaction of seeing two tubes blended together into a smooth joint was 😗👌

Notes, 2023-03-06
Early bicycle tires had a wide range of designs, few of which were compatible with each other. This design, described in 1906 in a trade book called Rubber Tires, was claimed to be popular because “the Darracq and Clement companies, now so famous as automobile makers, have generally controlled or rather monopolized French bicycle manufacture, and these manufacturers very early agreed to use only Dunlop tires on their wheels. This agreement had a powerful effect upon the independent French bicycle makers, who practically had to follow their lead and use Dunlops.”


My first real experience working on bikes was in college, in early 2003. The first bike I built up from parts was a steel road frame from the ‘90s that a previous owner had repainted a nice deep blue – leaving me clueless about who made it and unsure about the finer points of its geometry. In retrospect it was a size too big for me, but I invested in nice-ish (and at the time modern) components and rode it until I graduated in 2005, when I sold it on Craigslist along with an old recumbent I had picked up in the meantime. Since then, almost every new bike I’ve owned has been one that I built up from scratch – brazing or welding the frame myself, building the wheels by hand, and in many cases making some custom piece of hardware or another (a rack, a kickstand, a niche mechanical part). Some of this work was done when I was attempting to make a living as a custom bicycle framebuilder, but when I shut down my framebuilding business in 2011, I kept all of the bike tools. They now sit in a big tool chest behind my desk and are used on a more or less weekly basis.

In 2019, I wrote that “as one-off engineered objects – things that require design, fabrication, and systems integration – nothing beats a bicycle.” I stand by this claim, but I will also acknowledge that I derive a sense of moral superiority from my relationship with bikes. Bikes are so playful and earnest, and they simply overflow with my preferred signifiers of environmentalism and character-building. And anyway, my own sense of credibility relies on having at least one set of obscure (but useful) technical knowledge. Bikes provide me with that, and I have invested in my relationship with them accordingly. Today I own somewhere between six and ten, depending on how you count, and the likelihood that that number will decrease within my lifetime is relatively small.

Last week Kris De Decker, the author of Low-tech Magazine, published something of a takedown of newfangled bikes like mine, arguing that since the 1980s, “​​it becomes clear that the resource use of a bike's production increases while its lifetime is becoming shorter. The result is a growing environmental footprint.” De Decker’s 2018 post on the engineering behind his solar powered website is among my favorite articles on the internet, and when I observe it from afar, I can see some truth – or at least good intentions – in his perspective on the bicycle industry. Automobiles and airplanes are not the only carbon-emitting transportation forms out there, and it’s reasonable to proactively identify and reform the unsustainable aspects of the manufacturing processes we associate with environmental progress – things like bicycles, solar panels, and heat pumps.

But De Decker’s experience maintaining his bikes is quite different from mine, and I think a few of the claims he makes about modern bikes are simply false. So I tried to remember that his whole project – a valid one – is to underscore “the potential of past and often forgotten technologies.” And De Decker is right: Old bikes have potential. And whether his other conclusions are grounded in the bike industry that I know (and whether his suggestions are at all marketable to the general public) this core point is one that’s worth keeping in mind.

Notes, 2023-03-06
Low- to mid-range steel bike frames being welded at a small factory in Taiwan. By the time I toured this factory in 2014, I had spent years of my life trying to understand how to build steel bikes, building dozens of frames myself and visiting about a dozen small US framebuilders. The techniques, efficiency, and professionalism I saw in this small shop – which was totally unsophisticated, by the standards that the Taiwanese bike industry typically operates by – kind of blew my mind.


To a large extent, bicycles and bicycle components come from Taiwan – or are made by Taiwanese companies operating in China. Two manufacturers dominate bicycle manufacturing: Giant (whose founder, a failed eel farmer, was profiled by the NYTimes in 2013) and Merida (whose UK General Manager gave a relatively in-depth interview in 2022). Both of these companies were founded in 1972, and today they build a large portion of the bikes sold in the US – including most that are marketed under household names like Trek and Specialized. One Taiwanese company, Velo, absolutely dominates the market for bicycle saddles, making “roughly 80% of all enthusiast-level saddles sold worldwide.” I visited Velo’s factory in 2014 and met their founder, Stella Yu, who described her growth strategy in an interview with Cycling Tips two years later. She simply encouraged her customers to put their own brand names on the saddles that Velo made. “You [a bicycle brand] need to have your own exclusive product line. Now, all the most important brands have their own exclusive brands. That idea was from me. This is the Velo strategy.”

Notes, 2023-03-06
Stella Yu at the Velo factory showroom, 2014.

If you’re an independent bike shop owner, you probably buy partially disassembled bikes from one of a handful of name brands. Your mechanics do final assembly and tuning, and when they’re not building up new bikes (a task that typically goes to more junior mechanics) they’re doing service work. When a bike needs a replacement part, the most likely supplier will be QBP – Quality Bicycle Products, a Minnesota-based company that most established shops have an account with. (As a side note, QBP’s page on ImportYeti gives a good sense of where bike parts are made, and by who). Then there are BTI, HLC, JBI, and a handful of smaller distributors. Most of them will offer free shipping on orders over a few hundred dollars, making it easy for a shop to place an order weekly or even daily.


I love niche bicycle component manufacturers. The first one I ever visited in person was probably Phil Wood in San Jose, California (an old, low-fi tour of their shop is in this video). Later, in 2010, they made a few custom belt drive components for a bike I built for a customer.

Most of the bikes I own today have at least one part made by Paul Components (based and made in Chico, California; there’s a pretty good video tour here), and in an ideal world every bike I own would have titanium water bottle cages made by King Cage (who is based in Durango, Colorado, and whose fabrication process & shop setup are my *favorite*). I have a handful of components made by White Industries (based in Petaluma, California; they gave a video tour here) and a bunch of Thomson seatposts and stems (there’s a little manufacturing footage from their Macon, Georgia facility in this video), and a Spurcycle bell on basically anything I ride in traffic (who have a “built in the USA” video with some fabrication footage at the bottom of this page).

When I was in college, I saw these brands (all of which are owned and run by people who are more or less bike nerds like me) as separate from the bigger players in the industry. These days, though, I see the bike industry as being too small to support anyone who is separate – a feeling that’s probably related to the way in which I struggled to feel accepted by the bike industry myself. But that was so long ago now, and I was so bad at so many things then. And anyway, my sense of moral superiority – and my collection of six to ten bikes – will long outlive the bitterness I may have once felt about my repeated failures in the bike industry.


I’m generally on the lookout for techniques to manage my own stress, which can be triggered by a sense of futility – like when I fail at something a couple times in a row. Recently I’ve been toying with breathwork, doing daily five-minute “box breathing” exercises and trying “physiological sighs” when I’m particularly edgy. This study investigated those techniques’ real-time effects on stress, and the cyclic physiological sigh in particular seems to have done quite well.

Love, Spencer.

p.s. - We should be better friends. Send me a note - coffee's on me :)
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here's what we're doing about it.

2 Mar. 2023

How Parking Lots Shape Our Cities for the Worse

Paved Paradises

For every boat at a marina in Miami, Florida, there is by law an equal number of parking spaces on land for cars. Strip clubs in Boise, Idaho, are required to have at least one parking spot outside for every three seats inside. In Fort Worth, Texas, sororities have one parking spot per two residents. A driving range in Baltimore, Maryland, will have 1.5 spots per tee stand, whereas a golf course in the same city will have three parking spots per hole.

Nearly every city in North America follows a rigid guide for mandatory parking minimums; that is, the number of off-street parking spots that a business, home, place of employment, or community space must build to comply with zoning bylaws.

Paved Paradises
Required ratios of building-to-parking area for select uses in San Jose, CA. Chart via Donald Shoup.

Parking requirements are the invisible forces that shape much of our cities, almost always for the worse. They take up space and encourage environmentally destructive sprawl: a standard parking spot is about 17 sq meters, though this can more than double in size when you take into account the driveway surrounding the spot, which makes them comparable to small studio apartments. They’re terrible for local environments: their paved surfaces don’t absorb water, leading to pollutant-rich flooding during heavy rainfalls. They’re expensive to build: a parking stall can cost between $40,000-60,000, which is usually subsidized through higher rents and steeper prices at the businesses they service. Many people do not connect the short term benefits of ample parking (e.g., the convenience of driving one’s car as close as possible to the door of one’s destination) with its disastrous long term effects: the catastrophic impacts of climate change, a generation-defining housing crisis, and cities that are completely inaccessible to people without cars. And yet, for all their urban dominance, parking requirements are almost always completely arbitrary.

The Parking Bible

Professor Donald Shoup has been teaching urban planning at UCLA since 1974. He’s long been parking’s sharpest and most vocal critic, and his landmark 2005 tome, The High Cost of Free Parking, has become the definitive text for parking reform.

Clocking in at over 700 pages, The High Cost details the “pseudoscience” (Shoup’s words) behind parking minimums. Zoning ordinances in American cities started mandating parking in the 1930s, though it would take some time for it to become the standard—Los Angeles, for example, did not require off-street parking for commercial buildings until 1946. As the car rose in popularity, city streets faced increasing traffic. Motorists would circle the block, seeking limited curb space to park their cars, contributing to congestion. Thus mandatory parking minimums were born, a well-meaning initiative meant to ease traffic.

In order to set parking requirements, city planners go through a three step process. First, they define the specific use of land for a site. The Planning Advisory Service (PAS) lists 662 potential different land uses, including abattoirs, nunneries, landfills, tea rooms, and rifle ranges, though more common uses include schools, churches, and retirement homes. Next, planners must determine a unit of measurement related to the land use; often this is a measurement of floorspace, but it can also consist of the aforementioned boat slips, seats, and tee stands. Finally, they assign a number of parking spaces based on this unit of measurement. Some examples from the PAS include three spaces per 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) in a bicycle repair shop, one space per 10 nuns in a nunnery, 1.5 spaces per fuel nozzle at a gas station, and 1 space per 2,500 gallons (9,463.5 liters) of water in a swimming pool.

Determining the appropriate amount of parking at an establishment can be a tedious process, one that requires resources that many understaffed city planning divisions simply do not have access to. For decades planning students were taught little to nothing in the way of parking policy. Urban Land Use Planning by F. Stuart Chapin, which Shoup describes as the “bible of urban land-use planning,” makes no mention of parking. The issue is often dismissed by urban planners and transportation departments alike, each side assigning the issue to the jurisdiction of the other. Younger generations of planners and activists are becoming increasingly radicalized, thanks in no small part to Shoup himself and his acolytes of self-described “Shoupistas”.

Paved Paradises
Image via Donald Shoup on YouTube.

PAS regularly publishes surveys on how different cities manage their parking. Though these are meant to be purely informative, they end up being treated as a guidebook; cities will copy other cities’ mandatory parking minimums, without giving any critical thought to how they were conceived. This is a casualty of parking policy being treated as an afterthought by planners who are not given the time, budget, or resources to calculate the amount of parking that actually makes sense for their cities. Sure enough, PAS’s own research has concluded that most of these standards are mysterious in origin. In their words, as cited in Shoup’s book, “Copying other cities’ parking requirements may simply repeat someone else’s mistakes.”

Other cities might refer to the Parking Generation Report published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. This report is based on seemingly scientific studies, in which parking lots of various venues are observed for a set period of time, the number of cars parked in them is noted and plotted on a graph, and recommendations are extrapolated from this data. However, these extrapolations are extremely weak; a fast food restaurant’s parking lot might be observed over a period of five days, and become the standard for mandatory parking minimums for restaurants across the country. Most of the studies in the Parking Generation Report looked at suburban developments where the majority of trips are made by car, but its recommendations are then adopted by cities with walkable or transit rich neighborhoods. Finally, the parking minimums are often based on peak demand for a business. A mall has to have enough parking spaces to accommodate the number of shoppers on the Saturday before Christmas, regardless of how little the spots are used the rest of the year.

Changing Lanes

Paved Paradises
Changes in in density from 1950 to 2010 for residential offstreet, nonresidential offstreet and all space (offstreet and onstreet) in LA. Image via Transportation LCA

In 2010, software developer and labor organizer Tony Jordan became radicalized after reading The High Cost of Free Parking. Jordan was living in Portland but had grown up in Los Angeles, a city with an estimated 6 million parking spaces.

“I felt like I was eating a hamburger in the 1910s and just read [Upton Sinclair’s] The Jungle,” he tells me over video chat. “I was working in an office tower, overlooking a big parking structure. Now all of a sudden I could see the dollar signs. I could see the space it was taking up.”

Jordan was inspired to seek out other parking reformers, knowing that his background as an organizer could be helpful in getting people mobilized. He attended planning commission meetings, built mailing lists, networked with bicycle advocacy organizations, joined a Facebook group for Shoupistas, and created a spinoff group for Portland residents, which became Portlanders for Parking Reform. He still had a day job, and was paying out of pocket and using his vacation days to attend urbanist conferences and symposiums. In 2016, the group successfully lobbied Portland City Council to vote against new parking requirements in Northwest Portland. But Jordan had his sights set higher; he knew parking was a problem cities around the world were facing, and yet there was no centralized organization focused primarily on parking reform.

“They don’t teach you in school how to cause trouble,” he says. “But I know how to do this, and I want to help people in other cities do this.” In late 2018 he quit his job and in March 2020, along with planners Lindsay Bayley, Mike Kwan, and Jane Wilberding, he started the Parking Reform Network (PRN).

PRN is a young organization, which had the bad luck of launching at the start of a pandemic. Much of their current focus is on education, and they produce a podcast, a guidebook for activists, and a library of parking stories. They are at work growing their membership, which includes transportation planners, housing and environmental activists, civil engineers, students, and journalists (I am a member). Their most popular feature is an interactive map that shows all the cities that have repealed mandatory parking mandates. In 2017, Buffalo, NY became the first place in the United States to repeal these mandates city-wide. Now, the map of the United States is littered with dots.

Paved Paradises
Map of parking reforms. Image via PRN.

A Case Study in Edmonton

Since Buffalo, NY made urbanist headlines for being the first North American city to remove parking minimums, other cities have been following suit, re-examining and updating the data that informs so much of their urban landscapes.

A more recent example can be found in the city of Edmonton, Alberta. Edmonton is a car city. Alberta is known as the oil capital of Canada, and their oil and gas resources provide the province with 22% of its revenue. Edmonton’s snowy season lasts from October until as late as May, a fact people like to bring up when arguing against expanding cycling infrastructure. It’s home to the gargantuan West Edmonton Mall, and with it, the world’s largest parking lot. People in Edmonton like to drive, which means they like to park.

Paved Paradises
West Edmonton Mall and adjacent parking lot. Image via Google Earth.

Ashley Salvador didn’t want to get rid of parking entirely. She grew up on a farm an hour east of the city and knew that sometimes driving and parking were inevitable. Still, the sheer number of parking spaces in Edmonton struck her as excessive, and worse still, parking mandates were directly interfering with the housing crisis. In 2017, she was finishing a Master’s in Planning and her studies inspired her to launch YEGarden Suites, an advocacy organization providing guidance to those looking to build infill housing on their property.

Garden suites (small detached houses, usually found in the backyards of larger homes) are popular with college students, seniors, and people with disabilities, who want to live close to family while retaining a sense of independence. And yet, garden suites in Edmonton were beholden to the same parking minimums as other housing in the city, requiring a minimum of two parking stalls to be built alongside them. “I would hear stories from people who lived right next to a [light rail transit] stop who did not own cars, who were cycle commuters, and they were being forced to build parking with their suites. That’s what really got me interested in parking minimums.” Parking reform became a pet issue for them, and they were looking to broaden their impact.

“Amazing work was already happening internally at the City of Edmonton,” says Salvador. She and her YEGarden Suites colleague, Travis Fong, teamed up with Edmonton City planner Anne Stevenson to use the resources at their disposal to eliminate parking mandates in the city.

Paved Paradises
Areas in red show space allocated to parking in different locations in Edmonton. Image via Strong Towns.

The trio focused on a multipronged approach that included both public outreach and data accumulation. They determined how much a parking space cost to build in Edmonton (from $7,000 for a single paved parking space to $60,000 per individual stall for an underground parkade). They created visual guides, taking satellite images of residential neighborhoods and highlighting in red the amount of spaces dedicated to parking (there was a lot of red). Meanwhile, a team of city staff led by Stevenson recommended a comprehensive review of the state of parking. A detailed technical study was conducted, similar to but much more thorough than the ITE studies discussed in The High Cost of Free Parking. 340 unique commercial and residential sites were surveyed across the city, based on different characteristics that would influence parking demand: transit access, density levels, and walkability scores. Sites were surveyed in winter and summer to observe the role that weather played. They also selected ten Tim Hortons sites, the ubiquitous Canadian donut and coffee chain, “to control as many variables as possible,” said Stevenson in a recorded lecture. They were able to supply quantitative data that Edmonton’s parking minimums, which were set in 1974, were excessive.

With this information, Edmontonians were polled to gauge support for parking reform. When given a choice between parking minimums, parking maximums (i.e., limits on the amount of parking that establishments could build), and Open Option parking (i.e., establishments could themselves determine how much parking was required based on market forces), Open Option was by far the most popular. While parking reform has long been popular amongst lefty environmentalists, framing the issue as one of government overreach in local business made Open Option an attractive alternative to those across the political aisle. “You can talk about how eliminating minimums is really fantastic from a climate resilience perspective and as well as a fiscal responsibility perspective,” Salvador tells me. The complete process was laid out in a recorded seminar.

In June 2020, based on the research and data that Salvador, Fong, and Stevenson presented, the City Council of Edmonton voted unanimously to drop its minimum parking requirements. The following year, in the fall of 2021, both Stevenson and Salvador were elected to city council, where they both continue to advocate for walkable communities, better public transit, and affordable housing. “Even over the ten months that I've been on council, we've had a number of projects come through our public hearing process that otherwise would not have been viable if parking minimums were in place,” she says.

Edmonton was not the first city to repeal parking minimums — one only has to look at the Parking Reform map to see how they fit into a larger trend — but this victory in a car-loving city with extreme weather is a promising marker that there is indeed a growing coalition that is rethinking how we build our cities around parking lots. Though parking policy is managed independently by different municipalities, activists are learning from people in different cities and improving methodologies for collecting data that haven’t otherwise been updated in decades. The movement is snowballing, with climate, housing, and urbanist groups showing up for the cause. California State Assembly member, Laura Friedman, specifically cited Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis when arguing for parking reform. Bloomberg’s CityLab called parking reform “the next step on climate action.” In late October 2022, three US cities repealed their minimums within the same week of each other, something that would have been incomprehensible even ten years ago.

“One of the reasons I [started Parking Reform Network] is, Donald Shoup is retired,” says Tony Jordan. “We need to build a thing that's more than one person. Everyone wants a speaker, and they're like, ‘can you help me get Shoup out?’ But he's 84 years old. He’s not flying out to talk to your city councilor.” But new generations have taken up the torch that Shoup lit with The High Cost of Free Parking. A mass movement is building, and it doesn’t require a car.

27 Feb. 2023
Notes, 2023-02-27

I recently read two descriptions of very different manufacturing processes. The first was about steelmaking in the late 18th century in the always excellent Construction Physics:

In the puddling process, pig iron would be placed in a coal-fired reverberatory furnace, which separated the fuel from the iron by a low wall. Ironworkers (called puddlers) would constantly stir the pig iron to expose it to oxygen, and the flow of air over the iron would decarburize it (emphasis added).

The other, from the Brookings Institution, was one of the most moving paragraphs I read last year:

An extreme ultraviolet lithography machine is a technological marvel. A generator ejects 50,000 tiny droplets of molten tin per second. A high-powered laser blasts each droplet twice. The first shapes the tiny tin, so the second can vaporize it into plasma. The plasma emits extreme ultraviolet (EUV) radiation that is focused into a beam and bounced through a series of mirrors. The mirrors are so smooth that if expanded to the size of Germany they would not have a bump higher than a millimeter. Finally, the EUV beam hits a silicon wafer—itself a marvel of materials science—with a precision equivalent to shooting an arrow from Earth to hit an apple placed on the moon. This allows the EUV machine to draw transistors into the wafer with features measuring only five nanometers—approximately the length your fingernail grows in five seconds.

In the 250 years since puddling was first invented, we’ve developed industrial processes, like EUV lithography, that are almost indistinguishable from magic. However, there are still workers who stir molten metal by hand today (albeit with more protective equipment). Whether a steel foundry looks magnificent or hellish probably depends on whether you’re viewing it from the floor or somewhere far away.

It’s often been argued that manufacturing’s decline in richer nations is due to a PR problem. And while that might be a factor, there’s a much more intractable issue: making physical things is still often dirty, dangerous, demeaning, or some combination of all three (and unfortunately, our social paradigm often makes these add up to a fourth D – disposable). Salaries can be raised in minutes, PR campaigns can be waged in months, but this reality is much harder – or simply less economical – to change.

That description of semiconductor manufacturing would be a great addition to a PR campaign for manufacturing careers, but it describes a tiny sliver of the sector. If semiconductor manufacturing is a gleaming spire, primary industries like steelmaking and agriculture are its unglamorous but irreplaceable foundation. How do we make employment in these subsectors as safe, remunerative, and prestigious as working in a chip foundry?

-TW Lim

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~9% of opens) was a call for participation in a study about drying laundry. In the Members' Slack, we've been thinking up a list of the "fundamental machines of industrial civilization" and swapping recommendations for rolling luggage for little kids.


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

Notes, 2023-02-27
Notes, 2023-02-27Notes, 2023-02-27Notes, 2023-02-27

Graphene is very difficult to manufacture at any scale, but Ora Graphene Audio believes it’s cracked the code with the development of a proprietary nanomaterial known as GrapheneQ. Check out how the company makes premium headphones using proprietary graphene membranes with Fusion 360 at the heart of its design process.


The relative frailty of the human body makes work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) – a category that includes repetitive strain injuries and other painful disorders like tendonitis – one of the most significant and insidious safety issues facing manufacturing workers today. Exoskeletons for industrial use are often touted as an ideal solution, but like self-driving cars, they’ve been “just over the horizon” for years.

There has been some adoption, but instead of set ups akin to Ripley's power loader from Aliens, companies are strapping molded plastic and springs to workers. As this meta-study on exoskeletons explains, “they tend to show more of their potential in static activities, while in dynamic tasks, they can [be an] obstacle [to] regular job performance.” This means most of the gains are afforded by passive systems that rely on mechanical means to relieve strain without actuators or electronic components.

On the one hand, this means that low cost solutions like this arm support for construction are a promising and cost-effective route for reducing strain injuries. On the other, calling these “exoskeletons” sets up a major expectation gap, which probably does little to improve the image of manufacturing work.


One example of this expectation gap is fried rice. As this paper describing the physics of fried rice notes, any process that requires stressful, repetitive motion, like tossing fried rice in a wok dozens of times a day, is a good candidate for an assistive exoskeleton. The activity is provably harmful to the human body and takes place mostly (but as the paper shows, not entirely) on a single plane – and so the authors hope their “study may inspire the design of stir-fry robotics and exoskeletons to reduce the rate of muscle strain injury among professional chefs.” In practice, though, even before you factor in the nimbleness and range of motion required by high-speed line cooking, this is precisely the sort of dynamic task in which exoskeletons are more hindrance than help.

Our best attempt so far at solving the fried rice problem seems to be replacing the human rather than augmenting them. The paper cites this fried rice making robot, but notes that its performance doesn’t come close to what an expert wok-user can achieve. It turns out that it’s hard to improve upon self-propelled, fully autonomous machines with dozens of degrees of freedom – human bodies.

So the question of how to safely make fried rice encapsulates the challenge for manufacturing: If we want to make the field more attractive by eliminating some of the Ds, our options seem to be to augment the human body, replace it, or design processes to accommodate it – and even with the technology at our disposal, the first two options seem to have proven elusive.


Writing about exoskeletons reminded me of the idea that infrastructure has made us all cyborgs already (which I came across in this beautiful piece by Deb Chachra, which also considers Ellen Ripley’s power loader).

Alone in my apartment, at dusk, I flip a switch to turn on a light. In that instant, not only are my individual senses augmented (now I can see at night), but I become part of a continent-spanning colossus. My reach extends out for thousands of miles, across a national border, encompassing a nuclear power plant, a massive hydroelectric project, scores of substations, thousands of pylons, and an incalculable amount of human expertise, skill, and labour.

If infrastructure is an extension of the body, then surely a workplace is an extension of the worker as well. Work environments could be designed to eliminate strain altogether – making the workplace a distributed cyborg system. One could read the Occupational Safety and Health act as mandating this approach, by directing that employers must try to design safe workplaces, relying on personal protective equipment only as a last line of defense (I am not a lawyer, and I’d love to hear your take on this if you are a lawyer).

We’ve gotten pretty good at building gantry systems that move cars in 6 axes of motion, so we could clearly design car assembly lines that eliminate overhead work and its toll on workers’ bodies. However, automobile assembly plants are one of the main markets for strain-reducing passive exoskeletons, because overhead work remains commonplace. Companies have seemingly decided that it’s more efficient to equip autoworkers with passive exoskeletons to “reduce strain” rather than aiming for “no strain.”

I think there’s a line in the popular imagination that divides “tools” from “sci-fi cyborg shit,” and screwdrivers and exoskeletons fall on different sides of that line. But if infrastructure systems and workplaces make us cyborgs, arguably tools do too. Exhibit A: the automatic rebar tier. The rebar skeleton in a reinforced concrete structure needs to be lashed together with, essentially, giant twist ties. This literally used to be done with nothing but a hook, causing extremely high rates of repetitive stress injuries in concrete workers’ hands and wrists. The automatic rebar tier replaced this twisting action with the pull of a trigger and now there are long reach versions that eliminate even the need to crouch. Both automatic rebar tiers and passive exoskeletons provably reduce the rates of WMSDs.


  • This Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that transport and logistics was the sector with the highest rate of WMSDs in 2018 (the second chart can be toggled to show this).
  • To return to the question of augmenting, replacing, or accommodating humans: if we replace the human body, how do we deal with the social implications of large scale replacement of humans in the value chain? Or, as Hillary asked me, “is it better to have a dangerous job or no job?” Amazon seems to be doing its best to run a real-world experiment on this subject, deploying increasingly sophisticated warehouse robots. However, the company makes a good case that replacing humans in the most strenuous and dangerous jobs doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the number of humans in the workplace – in the last 10 years, Amazon added half a million robots to warehouse floors and over a million humans.


This 20-year old pamphlet illustrates some simple (and cheap!) ways to improve ergonomics on farms. At the time, the assumption seems to have been that all these solutions would be home-brewed on the farm after a quick trip to Home Depot. When I tried a quick google search today, there are commercial versions of most of the equipment available, like this harvest cart, that seem much fancier than what the pamphlet envisioned.

I tried to find data on the incidence of WMSDs in agriculture over time, to see if the recommendations from 2001 had any effect, but studies have been few and far between, and in the US, at least, government surveillance of the issue is virtually non-existent. Perhaps more inspection and enforcement would help, since the study found “emerging data suggest that agriculture faces a near epidemic of musculoskeletal disorders” –  and that “these potentially permanently disabling injuries are readily prevented using ergonomics approaches.”

One uniting factor in all these situations – from car factories to Chinese restaurant kitchens to the cilantro fields of California – is economic pressure. The simple fact is that global labor arbitrage has made it cheaper to replace lost manufacturing labor (whether it’s lost to injury or withdrawal from the labor market) than to invest in the systems needed to make farms and factories more attractive workplaces.


This amazing piece about the technology of automotive paints is where I first saw the car conveying gantry systems mentioned above.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members for supporting Scope of Work. Thanks also to Ed on the Member’s slack for the post that inspired this issue, and Sarah for all the links!

Love, tw

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

23 Feb. 2023
We're reading Chip War

Microchips – their availability, their geopolitical importance, and their arduously exacting fabrication – have been in the news constantly for the past few years. From Rasberry Pi lead times to the proliferation of fake chips to Intel's reshoring efforts, we've covered many manifestations of the ongoing chip shortage. Now, we’re excited to dig into the root causes. Starting on 2023-03-10, Scope of Work's Reading Group is starting Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller. This timely book chronicles the decades-long battle for control of semiconductor development and fabrication. Chris is an associate professor of international history at Tufts University and contextualizes semiconductors within US, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese history to trace the emergence of global conflicts around this critical technology.

We meet each week on Zoom to talk through a few chapters, share our thoughts, and reflect on how it all relates to our everyday lives. We also chat throughout the week on Slack, sharing marginalia and related links.

Once we've finished reading the book, we're looking forward to meeting with Chris for a group interview on the book and other aspects of the geopolitics of technology.

Members of Scope of Work can join the conversation in the #community-reading-groups channel on Slack – and follow along with the book themselves starting on 2023-03-10.

20 Feb. 2023
Notes, 2023-02-20

The astronomer Johanne Hevelius’ 1647 work Selenographia, the first atlas of the moon, included details that would not have been visible together at a single moment in time. The moon rocks slightly on its axis, so the face visible in one full moon differs at its edge from another full-moon night; Hevelius, returning to his telescope again and again, collapsed many nights into one. Even within a single drawing session he would go back and forth hundreds of times between the paper and the telescope, looking, drawing, looking, drawing – each time focusing on a small detail, trying to get it right and stitch it together with the rest of the lunar landscape. At the time there was no such thing as a snapshot; early modern scientific images dealt with the passing of time by collapsing it or drawing it out. Botanical illustrations might depict one plant with features as they would appear in different seasons or stages of maturity. On a page of Conrad Gessner’s Historia Plantarum (compiled 1555-1556), the flowering portion of the plant is drawn and dated two years earlier than the root, because he was reluctant to pull it up – a literal enactment of Ursula K. Le Guin’s preference “to leave influences and inspirations down in the ground, where they might continue to sprout, rather than bringing them up into the light where they don’t.”

As a physical artifact ages, it can take on qualities of Hevelius’ drawings of the moon, revealing multiple realities overlaid. Architecture makes a good example because buildings often outlive their builders and initial occupants, and are adapted to new uses and styles. New services might run through the walls alongside disused older ones. A preserved facade can be a window into a building’s past, but as scholar Alexandra Lakind remarked, keeping just the facade is “both literally and metaphorically a front,” an evocation of a past erased. I used to drive by a wood-frame bungalow with stucco oozing out around its windows and doors, underlying adobe or faux-dobe construction betrayed by the wobble in the vertical lines of the plank siding. Like a moon map, its edges were records of different times and different views.

-Natasha Balwit-Cheung

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~11% of opens) was the immensely practical red-white-blue bag. In the Members' Slack, we've been sharing the gory details that come with changing our publishing & payment processing stacks – which is nice to see interspersed with more joyous Member projects like adult-sized playground equipment and camp stools built from CNC-routed firewood.


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

Notes, 2023-02-20
Notes, 2023-02-20Notes, 2023-02-20Notes, 2023-02-20


At 27% of total emissions, the transportation sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the US. In the race to decarbonize it, batteries are critical and we need them to be better, cheaper, and more plentiful. But lithium mining has its own attendant harms to ecosystems, watersheds, and Indigenous sovereignty. Intensified demand for minerals can stoke geopolitical tensions and entrench historical patterns of dispossession and exploitation. I’m excited about a new report from the Climate and Community Project that tackles these intersections. It starts with the premise that transit decarbonization, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights are too often pitted against each other, and seeks solutions that balance these factors. The authors take a quantitative approach to modeling the transformations necessary to get to zero-emissions transport while minimizing lithium mining. The best case scenario in their analysis emphasizes reducing car dependence, downsizing lithium batteries, focusing on micromobility, and ramping up lithium recycling. The worse scenario – if status quo driving conditions extend to 2050 with ICE vehicles simply swapped for EVs – projects US demand requiring three times more lithium than is currently produced for the global market.

The authors of the report are doing good work stewarding it into public consciousness, going on podcasts and giving interviews, and responses and critiques have been similarly thoughtful.


  • Today, the default way to build a floor is a flat slab of emissions-intensive concrete. But New York’s 1898 building code included more varied and capacious techniques. Brick and segmental tile floors were common, and alternatives included “solid or hollow burnt-clay, stone, brick or concrete slabs in flat and curved shapes [placed between beams]… and any of said materials may be used in combination with wire cloth, expanded metal, wire strands, or wrought-iron or steel bars.” The light and strong Metropolitan floor system, popular in New York in the 1890s but rare today, consists of catenary wires embedded in a plaster-of-Paris matrix. All the load is borne by tension in the wires, while the plaster provides fireproofing and a smooth surface to walk on. Many forgotten or archaic floor systems and load-bearing structures offer great lessons in structural ingenuity and material efficiency. The Guastavino’s stunning use of structural tile in vaulted ceilings required only a small amount of cement. New forms of thin-shell vaulted floors rely on many of the same principles to great advantage. Certain practices of the past were abandoned not because they didn’t work, but because fuel was cheap, emissions were uncounted, and pouring concrete is comparatively fast and easy.

    Early-stage design choices can halve the embodied carbon of a building frame. The bulk of a typical building’s embodied carbon is in its structure, mainly in floor slabs. The layout of the structural grid and the choice of decking material happen near the very start of the design process of any building; following good rules of thumb at this stage or involving engineers early on who know how to optimize for lower impact in structures will usually save more carbon than deliberating over materials, furnishings, and finishes once the structural design is fixed.
  • I’ve been on the lookout for markers that reveal information about the time elapsed during an object’s manufacture and asked my husband (a mechanical engineer and industrial designer) and people in Scope of Work’s Slack what they have noticed. Date stamps on injection molds are straightforward, but there are more subtle clues within the process: ripples or faults could show where the material solidified at different times. Similarly, tool marks on machined surfaces could reflect a feed rate that is too high (a process allowed too little time), while the layer thickness in a 3D print might reflect the tradeoffs in resolution the designer was willing to make for shorter printing time.


  • Marianna Janowicz wants to know how you dry your laundry.
  • Localized failures in linear infrastructure systems (power lines, water lines, roads – anything long and mostly straight) can have cascading effects, disrupting wide expanses of interconnected systems. Extreme heat can cause power lines to sag, reducing transmission efficiency and requiring trains on electrified lines to travel more slowly. Loss of power to water filtration plants cuts off access for customers, and damage to roads not only creates bottlenecks for regular traffic but can hinder repair work. These systems can become more resilient by integrating emerging technologies like low-power miniature sensors, robotic inspections, and distributed fiber optic sensing. Remote monitoring provides continuous information about degradation and damage and highlights repair needs that could go unnoticed. But there are some challenges – infrastructure is typically built to last, and embedded sensors and software tend to become obsolete more quickly. The civil engineering sector tends to be a slow adopter of new technologies, due in part to that mismatch in technological life cycles, and also due to “fragmented supply chains, reliance on past experience and practice, and concerns about safety and robustness.”
  • Architect Frank Duffy, quoted in Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, conceived of a building as “several layers of longevity of built components,” which he named shell, services, scenery, and set. The shell lasts the lifetime of the building (to most people, it is the building). The services (cabling, plumbing, air conditioning) might be replaced every decade or two. The partitions and other non-structural built elements (scenery) might shift around with new occupancy, and the set – the furnishings, finishes, etc. – has the shortest season.


  • Managed retreat originally referred to the removal of sea walls and coastal infrastructure to allow subsiding or low-lying areas to flood, and sometimes return to a wetland or salt marsh state. In recent years, the phrase has been broadened to describe the planned movement of people and assets away from vulnerable places to higher ground or safer land to avoid climate-related hazards like wildfires and inland flooding.

    At the other end of permanent retreat from one place, there must be arrival and settlement somewhere else. I recently came across the concept of ‘managed arrival’ used by Daniel Aldana Cohen, director of the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative. Managed arrival calls for the focused and large-scale creation of housing, infrastructure, and care services in cities people might flee to. In this dialogue on the potential evacuation of Miami, Cohen argues that learning how to welcome and support climate migrants – and preparing for it – is an urgent priority.
  • To agronomist Almendra Cremaschi, seed sovereignty means cultivators and farmers have the ability to “freely decide what to produce, how to produce, and what to do with the results of [their] production.” Cremaschi is part of Bioleft, a community initiative experimenting with open-source seed development through a method they call participatory breeding: farmer breeders, public sector breeders, agricultural extension workers, and social scientists work together to develop seeds that are resilient, with high nutritional quality and high yields. Communities envision the seeds they want and share the process, information, and results on an open web platform.


A Norfolk Southern train carrying at least five cars of vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on 2023-02-03. Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas produced industrially to make PVC; it’s flammable, carcinogenic, and exposure can cause burns, lung damage, and death. To prevent an uncontrolled explosion, residents were evacuated before Norfolk Southern carried out a controlled burn of the contents of the derailed cars.

OSHA regulates vinyl chloride in workplaces to 1 ppm. Its “mild, sweet” odor becomes detectable around 3,000 ppm. During and after the controlled burn, people 15 miles from the site reported smelling chlorine. Residents of East Palestine were encouraged to return home on 2023-02-08, five days after the derailment, and encountered persistent odors and animals that had become ill or died. The impact of the accident remains unclear and residents want answers.

Disasters like this (which rail workers warned corporate negligence could lead to) bring renewed attention to the politics of monitoring and measurement. Information from air monitoring equipment that officials use to proclaim what is safe and what is hazardous does not relay an objective binary truth, nor is it measuring every chemical substance potentially released. Parts per million of combustion byproducts in the air are one indicator – 3,500 small fish floating dead in streams are another. Max Liboiron, author of Pollution is Colonialism, has urged for a shift in the concept of toxicity “away from fetishized and evidentiary regimes premised on wayward molecules behaving badly, so that toxicity can be understood in terms of reproductions of power and justice.”


I save any good-looking syllabus or reading list I come across online. A few from my overflowing basket:

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members for supporting Scope of Work. Thanks also to Sachiko Kusukawa for her lecture “Not a snapshot: scientific images in early modern printed books,” which inspired the introductory notes to this issue; to Justin Balwit-Cheung for his observations on temporal artifacts of different manufacturing methods; and to James Whiteley for his ideas and reading suggestions on the lessons to be learned from historical floor systems.

Love, Natasha

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

16 Feb. 2023
For Good Measure

Standardized units underpin everything in the modern world, and because they just work, we rarely pay them any attention. James Vincent’s Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants is a love letter to the complexity that unfolds when we shift our attention and truly consider what measurement is. It is an ancient human tool for understanding the world and it continues to be our best way of describing reality. It is the shared language that translates CAD drawings into parts. Measurement is metrology, as in the scientific practice of defining measurements, but it’s also personal and subjective, like our experience of time passing or evaluation metrics in the workplace.

James is a senior reporter for the Verge, the Vox Media site devoted to technology and society. He recently joined Scope of Work's Member reading group for an hour-long conversation about the book and the curious role measurement occupies in our lives. Throughout this conversation, we reference the creation of the metric system during the French Revolution, which is covered at length in James’ book. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.

Hillary Predko: The book got me excited about how the invention of new measurements shapes our thinking. It’s part of this broader relationship between taxonomy and cognition, like how cultures that don't differentiate between blue and green don't perceive a difference between blue and green. What's the relationship between how we think about measuring the world and then how we experience the world?

James Vincent: I'm not quite a full Whorf-Sapir hypothesis guy, but I think language and our definitions do shape how we think. They give us affordances in the same way that tools give us affordances. They lead us towards certain actions, and weights and measurements are just part of that. The tricky thing with discussing weights and measures is that they embody a wider sense of quantification, which can be applied very broadly – this idea that the world can be understood better when divided and when quantified and categorized. There was a lot of that in the chapter on medieval measurement, which draws on the great book The Measure of Reality by Alfred Crosby.

For Good Measure
The first and original meter bar, presented to the world in 1799, within its case in France's Archives Nationales. The original kilogram can be seen in the background (not to be confused with the International Prototype Kilogram, aka Le Grand K). Image credit: James Vincent.

He shows that you can have systems of measurement, which have their practical uses, but you also have just the idea of measurement which is in itself a tool for developing thought. And while there's this general idea of quantification, the specific units and systems of measurement have more of a political focus. Not in terms of policy implementation, but in terms of control of people through the state. With the invention of the metric system, that control becomes a huge ideological campaign. For the French revolutionaries, equality in the law is embodied in metrological terms.

To sum up, measurement as a force is just massive. I barely scratched the surface and really, measurement itself is only part of a broader section of cognitive tools that you might call categorization. Why is something in X-camp rather than Y-camp? Measurement is usually a tool to facilitate that distinction, the categorization in and of itself. You can't perceive the world as one continually connected thing – you need to split it apart, otherwise, you go crazy. Or you achieve enlightenment, depending on which way you approach that question.

For Good Measure
The Roda nilometer. Nilometers were used by the ancient Egyptians to measure the depth of the Nile's flooding each year, and so helped guide state policy, predicting whether famine or feast was on the horizon Image credit: James Vincent.
Aaron Rose: One thing I love about the book is that the history of measurement could be a history book, like a textbook, but you made it a story, partially through all your field trips. Starting in Egypt, you visited this incredible Nilometer and you visited the original metric standards, which I imagine is not easy to get access to! I'm curious how you picked the sites and what else you would have liked to see.

JV: Oh gosh, there's so much. The problem for me was that I wrote most of the book during the UK's [COVID-19] lockdowns. Every time I tried to plan a trip, the UK would institute a new lockdown, or there would be travel bans, especially going to the US. So one place I really wanted to visit was NIST, to see the [standard reference materials] collection in person. The good thing is, if you're curious about that, loads of good YouTubers like Veritasium and Tom Scott have done visits so you can see what it's like. But there was just so much stuff there that I wanted to see there. They have this famous wall in their back garden made up of all their standard testing bricks. It’s this multi-colored wall with different materials and you can see the patterns of where and how they change from limestone to granite.

For Good Measure
NIST’s Stone Exposure Test Wall in Gaithersburg, Maryland is approximately 12 m long, 4 m high, 0.6 m thick at the bottom, and 0.3 m at the top. Image via NIST.

The Cairo trip was organized in about five days because the UK had just lifted a lockdown and I had two weeks left of my leave before I had to get back to work. I had already been chatting with Salima, the professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo, so I just jumped on a plane. There were lots of places I wish I'd got to go to, places like the UK's Center for Physics, and the National Physics Laboratory.

Samantha Luc: As a Canadian, I found the chapter on metric versus imperial fascinating. We just haven’t settled on one system here – it’s all mixed up. We measure weather in Celsius and pool temperature in Fahrenheit. Our stoves are in Fahrenheit but if you get the right or wrong baking book, it could be in Celsius. I worked for a factory that was very insistent on Celsius, so we just had conversion charts everywhere. It doesn't make any sense.
HP: I'm also in Canada, and I've heard it described as the further something is from the state, the more likely we are to measure it in Imperial.

JV: That's such an interesting axis to think about, and it's true in the UK as well. I got into it in the sections where I quote Seeing Like a State, which is another favorite. Standardization tends to be implemented from a top-down level and therefore has to radiate out from these institutions of control. In the UK, for example, there is a personal dimension to the units we use that are non-metric. It is pints in the pub and pints of milk. It is your weight and your height – we talk about feet and inches and pounds, ounces and stones.

It's funny, they weigh babies in the UK in metric, and they always tell the parents in Imperial. So there are two units used: one is for the official government log, and the other is for: "This is how you relate to your baby and understand its size." It has to be translated. And I just think that's such a lovely encapsulation of that translation, and as you said, that sense of distance from the state.

HP: I knew there's tension between Imperial and metric measurements but your chapter goes so much deeper than I could have imagined. The Tower of Babel is held up as this example of what metric is aiming for. But the pyramid conspiracy theory really got me. Could you talk a bit more about divine geometry and pyramidology and how they’re used to support Imperial measurement?
For Good Measure
Tony Bennett of Active Resistance to Metrication (ARM), a metrological guerilla group, "amends" a signpost, changing the units from metric to Imperial. Image credit: James Vincent.

JV: Honestly was a surprise to me as well. You mentioned the Tower of Babel and that conversation came up when I met with the head of the Active Resistance to Metrication. He, as a devout Christian, saw that God cast the world into different nations therefore we need to maintain different cultural systems. But pyramidology was what really surprised me as well.

Of course, I'd heard about pyramidology, this idea that there's some other mystical aspect to the pyramids in Egypt – it's something we now see as part of the ancient aliens-style conspiracy theory. However, it literally comes out of metrology. Simon Schaffer, who is this incredible scholar in the UK, who does a lot on the history of science, history, and philosophy of science (and is one of my intellectual inspirations) has written about it, so I got into it from his work.

The Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt involved a lot of measurement, and that is where the West gets the first accurate measurements of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Basically, they decide that the pyramid was measured out in this unit they call pyramid inches which happens to be pretty much the same as the British Imperial inch, and they conclude that it is the same inch that was handed down by God, which was meant to be contained, encoded in the pyramids for all time, for all generations, and therefore to move away from the British Imperial system is to flout God's expressed wishes.

For Good Measure
Charles Piazzi Smyth's 1877 diagram showing how he derives the pyramid inch. Image via Wikimedia.

So, the real seed of that conspiracy theory comes from the use of measurement as a form of control. And I find it interesting because it's almost as if you have these people who are looking to control these objects, and they do that by measuring them – they get so intoxicated with the measures that they've created, that it spins out of their control. They think there must be more to it than this; these numbers must mean more than what they are. They've measured the pyramid, they've gone all over it, but they don't know it any better. They don't know it culturally, they don't know the actual significance of it.

To understand that would take actually listening to Egyptians about their history and talking to them about it to find out what the significance is. Instead of that, they look for the significance in what they know and can control, which are the numbers. And therefore you have to derive significance from those numbers. And I think that is why measurement only will only get you so far – you need other disciplines, like the soft social sciences, because you need a synthesis of those two approaches to understand the subject better.

Spencer Wright: I'm curious what you think the long-term implications of these systems are. Presumably, there are actual long-term societal effects from the way that we measure things. There are significant differences between Imperial and metric, and there are benefits to each one. But the metric system is based on a flawed understanding of the geometry of the Earth – does that matter? After having looked at these systems and their impacts, what do you think the effect is?

JV: I think my conclusion is that anything that builds consensus, anything that allows communication, is worth it. That justification for Imperial units, that it’s more useful to have easy divisions into quarters, thirds, and halves, definitely held up at a time when we were buying more loose goods – I think it genuinely reflected how measurement was used. And now when everything is pre-packaged, those calculations are less likely to be used. Of course, there are professions like woodworking, where being able to quickly half, third, and quarter continues to be useful.

For Good Measure
Two illustrations from Abbot J. Loridan’s 1890 “Voyages des Astronomes français à la recherche de la figure de la terre et de ses dimensions” (Travels of the French astronomers in search of the figure of the earth and its dimensions). Image via Wikimedia.

You mentioned the fact that the metric system is built on an error, and it's built on two, really. The first is in the actual measurement. To derive the meter two astronomers, Delambre and Méchain, set off from Paris in opposite directions to calculate the meridian of the earth. Méchain made a calculation error during his journey that just got covered up. The other is the fact that they got the actual length of the Earth wrong because it is not this uniform sphere. But it doesn't matter! The thing I say in the book is that the fact that there are errors doesn't matter in the slightest. What mattered was the story that the French scientists and politicians were able to tell, which was a story of adversity, great intelligence, and hard work. That helped sell people on the metric system and its purported neutrality.

So I think, yes, different systems of measurement do have effects on how we interact with the world. But the greater purpose of measurement itself is as a tool of communication. Measurement is a language that affords communication at a distance – that's much more important than any individual artifact of the measuring system.

Thanks to James for joining us, and to Scope of Work’s Members for your questions. An excerpt of Beyond Measure is available in The Guardian and as a podcast, but I really recommend reading the whole book.

13 Feb. 2023

NOTES, 2023-02-13.

Notes, 2023-02-13

The built environment is shaped by local factors. The distinct geography, history, language, and available building materials at any given place enable unique building styles and afford different infrastructures. Natasha Balwit-Cheung calls this a buildingshed. Like a watershed describes the area from which water flows to a particular point, a buildingshed describes the systems of energy, labor, and materials that contribute to a particular building. I’ve spent the last decade getting obsessed with the buildingsheds that surround me. In my hometown of Toronto, I was fascinated by tracing how the clay bricks that built the city are ground up to build out new land on the shoreline. When I moved to Montreal, I learned about a limestone quarry that once provided stone for buildings downtown and now gets filled with truckloads of snow from the city’s streets each winter.

Recently I moved to Hamilton, a city west of Toronto where the buildingshed is permeated by steel. Of course, every modern city is built with steel, but Hamilton is shaped by it – the city’s been a major steel producer for over a century. And while many North American cities have either pushed industrial uses out to the suburban fringes or deindustrialized, Hamilton’s active port and steelmaking works abut its downtown. I love driving along the overpass that slices through the industrial sector, and looking out at the sprawling networks of factories, railroads, and warehouses that work in concert to produce and move over four million tons of steel every year. Access to Lake Ontario first attracted manufacturers to Hamilton, and the port still ships in iron ore through the St. Lawrence seaway into Great Lakes. It was also the first city in Canada to electrify. AC electricity, developed at nearby Niagara Falls, was installed in 1898, enabling rapid industrial expansion. From a catchment area that encompasses mines and powerplants, resources are brought together to forge steel that holds up the world around me.

-Hillary Predko

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was a Twitch-streaming fish that committed credit card fraud. In the Members' Slack, the reading group has taken inspiration from Adam Minter's Secondhand and divested carloads of stuff. Adam will be joining us to discuss the book this Friday, 2023-02-17 – join us!


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

Notes, 2023-02-13
Notes, 2023-02-13Notes, 2023-02-13Notes, 2023-02-13


  • The largest steel mill near me, a plant run by the multinational ArcelorMittal, is investing $1.8 billion CAD in reducing carbon emissions. The project will phase out coal-burning blast furnaces for direct reduced iron (DRI) electric arc furnaces, powered by gas. These furnaces will process both scrap and reduced iron ore, targeting a 25% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030. While gas-powered, the company claims the plant will be built “hydrogen ready.” That isn’t necessarily a guarantee fossil fuels will be phased out, as blue hydrogen is derived from gas.

    There is no panacea – steelmaking requires heat as high as 1700°C, which is difficult to achieve without fossil fuels at the moment. But finding opportunities to limit atmospheric carbon emissions and develop alternative fuels is critical, as steel accounts for ~10% of global emissions. This article covers how steel is made today and the available pathways for lower-carbon production. Besides the DRI approach ArcelorMittal is pursuing, a number of companies are working on alternative solutions – including lasers to achieve high heat and very high temperature heat pumps. Also see this Twitter thread on policy opportunities to ensure new steel technologies don’t lock in more fossil fuel use.
  • A compelling review of Knowledge Regulation and National Security in Postwar America, which covers the history of export controls in the US. Export controls emerged after WWII as a tool for protecting national security, used to keep technology out of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, they evolved into a tool for economic security, when the US’s semiconductor industry was threatened by chip production in Japan. The reviewer takes issue with the book's firm delineation between national security and economic security, arguing instead that the two have become fully entangled. Globalization in manufacturing has muddied the waters – particularly in US/China relations – and the recent ban on exports of high-performance chips and associated “know-how” to China will have implications for both economies. At the heart of the relationship between the two countries is “a tradeoff between hegemony (monetary and military) and manufacturing capacity.”


Africa – a Designer’s Utopia is a research project that celebrates the ingenuity of anonymously designed products used in West African cities. The project page is a bit scant on details, but this interview with the founder, Lagos-based designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello, covers the two Nigerian designs he’s researched so far. The first is the kwali, a portable convenience store for making sales while walking through traffic. The second is the meruwa water barrel, for rolling jerry cans of water between suburbs. Nifemi says, “[African] design language is different from the standardized design language of say Europe or North America, but I think it’s important to build an archive of products and ideas that embrace how we live, rather than dictating how we should want to live.”

The project made me think of what (I assumed) must be the most prolific anonymous design on the planet: those sturdy woven zippered bags, used around the world to carry anything and everything. Known as red-white-blue bags, they’re made of nylon, polyethylene, or polypropylene. I first noticed them stacked on luggage carts in the Toronto airport, as a cheap solution for transporting goods to far off family members. But as I did some research, it turns out the bag’s inventor is known! Hong Kong-based Lee Wah started making them in the 1970s before knockoffs proliferated globally. This quotidian bag was even knocked off by none other than Louis Vuitton.


  • Oil is the primary source of revenue in Nigeria, accounting for 90% of foreign exchange earnings. This article explores the country's vast informal economy of artisan refining, or oil bunkering. People from all walks of life, from single mothers to militia members, make a living siphoning and refining crude oil from pipelines. Estimates of the volume of oil diverted vary widely, typically between 200,000 and 700,000 barrels a day – or between 10 and 30% of Nigeria’s total production. These artisan refiners heat crude in steel containers over a fire, capturing and cooling the vapors to condense into gasoline, kerosene, or diesel. It’s dangerous work, and oil production in both the formal and informal economy is damaging the surrounding ecosystem. But for many, it’s the best work available. As one refiner in the article puts it, “We call it drinking from your well. It’s not theft. It’s our resources.”
  • One of the joys of post-industrial cities is the excess building stock, ripe for creative reuse. In San Francisco, I lived in a warehouse converted into a warehome – a space plastered with art with well-used circus equipment hanging from the rafters. But the deadly 2016 fire at Ghost Ship, an artist space in an Oakland warehouse, serves as a reminder that not all re-adaptations are safe or advisable. Following the disaster, architect (and SOW Member) Jeffrey McGrew started working with artists and makers to get spaces up to code. He’s adapting those insights into a guide to navigating building codes for people looking to adapt spaces creatively. I found this quote particularly useful:

    [T]his isn’t computer code, it’s legal code, and intent counts a great amount therein. While there can be ‘loopholes’ you can find that sometimes can work to solve a specific minor issue, trying to apply said ‘loopholes’ when you’re honestly trying to cheat is only going to make building officials mad at you and thus make your project much harder to do…In other words, just because you put your tiny house on wheels, and now call it a ‘trailer’ so it’s technically ‘not a house’ anymore, doesn’t mean the Fire Marshal is going to let you get away with anything they think is unsafe.


  • Costco’s flat topped jugs eliminate the need for crates when shipping pallets of milk.
  • An archive of waste management PSAs compiled by the NYC Department of Sanitation’s artist in residence.
  • Securing access to both copper and tin was a necessary part of any Bronze Age society, and complex supply chains emerged to move tin from over 3,000 years ago. This article details how archeologists traced the trade relationships between Central Asia and the Mediterranean by analyzing tin ingots found in a 3,300-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. Using isotopic profiles many of the ingots can be linked back to the specific ore bodies they were mined from in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.


I am delighted and impressed by these textile testing apparatuses built by Dave Cox for Sheertex, a company that makes very strong pantyhose. The machines perform textile quality tests (akin to the ball bust test for strength and the Martindale test for abrasion), modified to better evaluate the properties of high-stretch fabric. Beyond swapping in better fixturing to hold springy samples, Dave added some playful (and frankly uncanny) details that I love: The burst strength test is performed by a 3D printed thumb, and the abrasion test is performed by a pantyhose-clad silicone foot, affixed to the end of a cobot.

Full disclosure: I used to work for Sheertex, and they’re a business Member of SOW, and Dave is a good friend. But, that gives me some insight into the company and the problem this project tackles. It’s challenging to demonstrate the performance of a high end product in a succinct and marketable way – I have never considered or cared how many kilopascals it would take to burst my clothing, and if you told me a number I wouldn’t know how to contextualize it. Beautifully filmed test footage, contextualized in relation to other products, gets the message across. GORE-TEX also does this extremely well!


Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members for supporting Scope of Work. Thanks also to Andy for being game to chat about steel and to Kai, Dave, Reilly, Andrew, and Skyler for the links.

Love, Hillary

p.s. I’ll be publishing a bit more on Montreal’s buildingshed before shifting my attention to my new city. If you want to talk about hydroelectricity in Quebec, send me a note.

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

6 Feb. 2023
Notes, 2023-02-06

I’ve always been fascinated with the co-evolution of computation and textiles. Some of the first industrialized machines produced elaborate textiles on a mass scale, the most famous example of which is the jacquard loom. It used punch cards to create complex designs programmatically, similar to the computer punch cards that were used until the 1970s. But craft work and computation have many parallel processes. The process of pulling wires is similar to the way yarn is made, and silkscreening is common in both fabric and printed circuit board production. Another of my favorite examples is rubylith, a light-blocking film used to prepare silkscreens for fabric printing and to imprint designs on integrated circuits.

Of course, textiles and computation have diverged on their evolutionary paths, but I love finding the places where they do converge – or inventing them myself. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a gigantic Tajima digital embroidery machine. This room-sized machine, affectionately referred to as The Spider Queen by the technician, loudly sews hundreds of stitches per minute – something that would take me months to make by hand. I’m using it to make large soft speaker coils by laying conductive fibers on a thick woven substrate. I’m trying to recreate functional coils – for use as radios, speakers, inductive power, and motors – in textile form. Given the shared history, I can imagine a parallel universe where embroidery is considered high-tech and computers a crafty hobby.

-lee wilkins

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~4% of opens) was a history of drug smuggling birds. In the Members' Slack, we love keeping the conversation about each Monday's issue going. One Member shared that if you, like Anna and Kelly, dream of riding down an airplane's escape slide, you should look into volunteering for Citizen Corps emergency preparedness drills.


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:

Notes, 2023-02-06
Notes, 2023-02-06Notes, 2023-02-06Notes, 2023-02-06


In 1970, the British Railway filed a patent for a flying saucer, or as they put it “a power supply for a space vehicle which offers a source of sustained thrust for the loss of a very small mass of fuel.” The project started out as a lifting platform, but quickly got out of hand. Fuel was to be injected into a magnetic accelerator, and high-energy lasers would accelerate hydrogen atoms into collisions. Then, some of the atoms would undergo nuclear fusion and generate helium, releasing a ton of energy. Any observer would have seen a brilliant glow of light before being promptly irradiated. The engineer who designed it, Charles Frederick, did so on his own time and only brought it to British Rail once the design was complete. Since the British patent system allows for not-yet practical entries, the patent was granted. Soon after, the word “nuclear” hit a nerve with the cold war mindset of the government and it was labeled as top secret. On the subject of bizarre patents, I love this one granted for “pet display clothing,” which reminds me of this wearable ant farm.


  • Traditionally, one might pour concrete into a box-like structure and wait for it to dry. This overview of concrete forming technology elaborates on a few other ways of forming concrete, such as fabric or inflatable forms that allow for more organic or unique shapes. Also see these CNC-manufactured knit forms for intricate glass-fiber-reinforced concrete, which eliminate the need for traditional concrete molding materials like wood or foam.

  • I love unique media storage devices, and some of my favorites are variations of feeling bumps along a surface. Gramophone wax cylinder recorders, popular in the early 1900s, use a sapphire needle, gently pressed along the wax, to record and play back sound. Another favorite is the capacitance electronic disc, which played video on a record-like device, but had a few fatal flaws: it was extremely fragile, and about half a decade too late. While the idea was first imagined by RCA in the mid-1960s, it wasn’t released until 1981, well after VHS.

    Best of all might be TIM, the mechanical speaking clock the British Post Office put into service in 1937. If someone wanted to set their pocket watch, they could phone up TIM (so named because you dialed 846, or TIM) to hear the exact time. While the TIM wasn’t the first speaking clock, its design was fascinating. It used glass disks, like gramophone records, with recordings by Jane Cain, who was known as The Girl With The Golden Voice. Her pre-recorded messages told the correct time, down to the second, thanks to a series of cams and ratchet wheels that rotated the disks for playback.
  • This recent Practical Engineering video explains how different spillway gates hold back and release water on dams. I was particularly impressed with the 3D printed examples of gate designs, which are demonstrated in a clear acrylic box with dyed water.

  • A great video of the last fake flower factory in NYC, where hand dyed materials are crafted into unique blooms with die presses.


  • This YouTube playlist features antique (and ancient) counting and calculating devices with a huge variety of mechanisms. One of my favorites is the 1844 Palmers Pocket Scale, a small book with a circular slide rule in the back cover – perfect for making your calculations on the go. The ornate flowers are also a nice touch. The full text is available through Google Books, slide rule not included.

  • In the 1960s, ferrite cores were used as nonvolatile memory. This meant that even if power was discharged from the unit, the memory remained intact, but the cores were big and slow. Looking for a more powerful and easier to manufacture solution, Bell Labs invented bubble memory in the 1970s. The design used magnetic bubble-like parts of a silicon chip to physically store memory. While it offered robust storage, bubble memory had low capacity, slow speed, and was expensive to produce – the volatile competitor DRAM was less robust but had better performance. DRAM gained more market share but a 1988 shortage, caused by a Japanese-American trade agreement that limited production of ICs, resulting in a brief spike in popularity for bubble memory. Ultimately, bubble memory was used for niche applications in rugged environments such as factory automation, satellites, and military hardware. Nonetheless, this obscure storage technique played a role in the Persian Gulf War where its cost and performance were a reasonable trade-off for reliable data security.


  • Ken Shirriff details the intricate mechanical systems of the Globus INK – a gorgeous navigation system for soviet spacecraft. It features a rotating globe inside a metal housing, and let Soyuz cosmonauts see their position above Earth.

  • In the summer, I love Montreal’s twisted wrought iron staircases, but in the winters, they’re treacherous. I’d always wondered why a city that gets so much snow has so many external staircases. It turns out there were several factors. Due to a sudden increase in population in the early 20th century, the city limited the width of multiplexes and introduced requirements for green spaces out front. To maximize the limited interior space, architects began putting staircases outside buildings. The Catholic Church, which wielded political clout, also asserted a moral stance: people shouldn’t be able to enter a house in secret. It's not the only odd regulation that has shaped the city: There is also a law that buildings can’t be taller than Mount Royal, the mountain at the heart of, and the namesake of Montreal.


  • An informative chart on the electromagnetic spectrum, with sidebars on cosmic microwave background radiation, television, gamma rays, and more.

  • Open source hardware is great, but if you wanted to have truly trusted systems, you would have to design and manufacture your own silicon chips. In the process of manufacturing an IC, there are opportunities for malicious actors to insert security vulnerabilities that can compromise your machine. This detailed article explains how to spot hardware Trojans – malicious circuitry that impairs the function or trustworthiness of an IC – under a microscope. Some examples of hardware vulnerabilities include a hack that would reduce the effectiveness of random number generators or leak information about the processor to an attacker. The wildest thing to me is that these behaviors can be masked during security testing by IC tape-out design modification – changing the IC photomask post-signoff – to flip transistor polarity and make the chip appear to function normally.

  • Most telescopes use traditional optics like lenses and mirrors, but some have used rotating liquid to focus light. In 1850, Ernesto Capocci proposed spinning liquid mercury to focus light, and the concept was first realized in 1872 by Henry Skey who built a 35 cm diameter liquid mirror in his laboratory. However, many contemporary liquid telescopes aren’t very practical as vibrations disrupt the surface, making images difficult to capture. In 1982, Canadian physicist Ermanno F. Borra used a solid-state sensor known as a charge-coupled device to cut down vibrations and capture images more efficiently. There are several attempts to revive liquid mirror telescopes today, as they can be easier to manufacture and more cost effective than large scale mirrors. Mirror telescopes can be extremely expensive – it costs roughly $10 million for a 6-meter mirror, and the JWST mirrors cost almost $10 billion!


Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members for supporting this newsletter. Thanks also to Jeffrey, Chris, and Rob.

Love, lee

p.s. - I collaborated on an open source tool for calculating the size and resistance of your soft speaker, tell me what you think!

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

30 Jan. 2023
Notes, 2023-01-30

Dealing with a crisis can be exhilarating. The Bay Area was recently inundated with three weeks of torrential rain — the kind of winter deluge that feels like a remnant of a previous, less drought-stricken California. It came as a surprise, and many of us were not prepared. I (Kelly) recently moved into a new (well, very old) house, and soon discovered that some of the downspouts and grading couldn’t deal with that much water. My partner and I found ourselves making frenzied rain-splattered runs to the hardware store for downspout extenders and splash blocks, then rushing home to put them into temporary service to manage the unceasing flow of water. And we were not alone: Around the state, communities came together to fill sandbags and clear storm drains, troubleshooting their way through hundreds of acute, hyperlocal crises.

As Rebecca Solnit famously described in A Paradise Built in Hell, people tend to rise to the challenge in times of disaster, and even do it with joy and aplomb. It’s perversely fun to stand in the pouring rain, walling up sandbags and rigging up tarps. But there are limitations to what you can do in the moment. Disaster responses and mutual aid can fill some of the gaps left by failing infrastructure or underinvestment, but they can’t do everything. Now that the rain has stopped — or at least paused — there’s an opportunity to retain that sense of urgency, and figure out how to improve the systems we’re working with so they can better cope with the next crisis. For me this means working on a permanent downspout and drainage fix. For California communities, it should include devising robust plans for local climate mitigation and adaptation, and increasing funding to repair and remediate infrastructure in neglected neighborhoods so people aren’t left soaked and stranded when the next storm comes.

- Kelly Pendergrast, Anna Pendergrast

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~5% of opens) was a new flight sim controller, the Yawman Arrow. In the Members' Slack, highly specific questions get thorough responses. From help finding the right nomenclature that's at the tip of your tongue, to dialing in feeds and speed, the community's got you covered.



  • New year, new projects! And if you're in NYC, your place for projects is the New York Industrial Collective. With 24/7 access, our facilities can help you tackle the most ambitious extracurricular stuff – from electronics, to prototyping, to crafts and woodwork. Don’t spend years buying your own Festool, Sawstop, Formlabs, and Tektronix equipment – use ours instead ;)


  • Perhaps it’s the legacy of wood fire heating, but people expend a lot of energy heating and cooling the buildings and rooms we inhabit – instead of heating or cooling things (bodies, equipment, sensitive electronics) directly. Heating and cooling buildings is incredibly energy intensive, accounting for 13% of all energy consumed in the US in 2016. Localized thermal management (LTM) — that is, heating the area directly around a person or object rather than a whole room or space — can be a much more efficient alternative. One study showed that reducing the temperature in an office building from 20.5° to 18.8° C – and giving people a heated chair – saved 35% on energy costs while increasing people’s reported comfort levels.

    While LTM systems often skew high-tech (think thermal fabrics and personal heating and cooling robots), one has existed in its current form for a hundred and twenty years: the hot water bottle. This article from Low Tech Magazine traces the hot water bottle’s history and proposes how they can be integrated into daily life, with the potential for significant energy savings: You can heat 900 hot water bottles for the cost of heating a modestly-sized home for one day.

  • We’re most familiar with electric fences as a tool to limit the movement of animals across a terrestrial landscape, but electrical pulses have also been deployed underwater to manage the movement of Asian carp. Asian carp – an umbrella term for four species that were introduced to the southern United States in the 1960s – have become highly invasive. They have thrived in US rivers to the extent they now comprise up to 95% of the biomass in some waterways; they have no natural predators, can grow up to 40 kg, and consume up to 5-15% of their body weight every day. But carp haven’t spread to the great lakes yet, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken great measures to prevent them from moving from the Mississippi River Basin into Lake Michigan – including deploying two barriers to send direct pulses of electricity across the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. This video has a great overview of the complexities of electrifying a canal, and what it means for the boats crossing through it and other wildlife in the area.


Exploded view drawings and diagrams show the components (and often order of assembly) of an object. Each component is separated out “as if there had been a small controlled explosion emanating from the middle of the object” (thank you for that poetic description, unnamed Wikipedia author). Leonardo da Vinci drew an exploded view gear assembly in the 15th century, and countless assembly manuals, landscape designers, and Microsoft PowerPoint users rely on them to this day. But what if you want to make a physical exploded view with components of actual products? It’s fairly straightforward if you’re arranging parts on a flat surface, but things get trickier if you want to show them hanging in 3D space. Steve Giralt’s internet-famous 2016 video of burger components seemingly levitating before being dropped into the perfect burger shows that trying to achieve an exploded view in “real life” is a complex production. As this behind-the-scenes video shows, the shot used a high-speed robot camera arm, rigging equipment, and fishing wire to film a couple of seconds of video which were significantly slowed down and composited for the final video.


  • While diligently reading the emergency landing instructions found in every airplane seatback pocket, we sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to throw open the exit door and deploy the bouncy yellow escape slide. Outside an actual emergency landing, though, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to give it a try. For disaster relief and emergency response professionals, there is a place to practice for these unlikely occasions: disaster preparedness training facilities. FEMA runs The Center for Domestic Preparedness, where visitors can experience a simulated Sarin gas attack, triage injuries in a simulated train derailment, or decontaminate a simulated chemical spill. Private sector company Guardian Centers also runs a disaster preparedness facility on their massive Georgia campus. Attractions at this veritable disaster theme park include a 1.7 km four lane highway for simulating accidents and terror attacks, and two city blocks of “dynamic collapsed structures” for practicing search and rescue.

  • Most buildings slated for removal are demolished, and the rubble carted off to landfill. It’s a method that’s fast but wasteful, especially as an estimated 40% of global material flows can be attributed to construction, maintenance, and renovation of structures. As an alternative, we’re interested in building deconstruction — why not think of an existing building as a repository of valuable materials that could be made available for future reuse? In the US, some jurisdictions have put in regulations for the deconstruction of homes to prevent usable materials from being landfilled. In other places large-scale deconstruction is already happening in order to repurpose materials — including multi-story office blocks in Japan and the Netherlands that were deconstructed floor-by-floor.

  • The Bow Gamelan Ensemble devised a way to “play” the industrial history of London’s waterways — the crumbling buildings, scrap metal, and unused structures left behind when the shipping industry transformed and heavy manufacturing moved further from the center of the city. With instruments made from rusted metal and other rubbish, the group of three artists explored the potential to salvage art from abandoned infrastructure. The group’s 1980s performances captured (or at least referenced) something of the drama and danger of the now-evacuated industrial past — perhaps a strange and scrappy precursor to the stagier and more palatable postindustrial beatmaking of Stomp!, the incredibly popular percussion group.



  • In the wake of the infamous Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) and a broader rise in concerns about food safety, trailblazing health commissioner Dr. Sigismund Goldwater ushered in the first health department inspections of New York City’s restaurants in 1916, as outlined in this wide-ranging story. However, when inspections began, restaurateurs had to be assured that the quality of their cooking was not in question: “The department wishes to emphasize that its inspections and resulting grading have nothing to do with good or bad cooking.”

  • Some new (and much hyped) research on Roman concrete, and its ability to “heal” cracks up to .5 mm wide. Though the original Roman concrete recipes were famously lost for centuries, much recent effort has gone into recreating and understanding them. This new paper makes the most direct hypothesis to date, suggesting that by using quicklime (solid calcium oxide) rather than slaked lime (lime premixed with water, which forms calcium hydroxide), some Roman builders were able to create exothermic reactions in their concrete slurries, resulting in unique chemical compounds and faster cure times. And as the cured concrete aged and eventually deteriorated, lime-rich regions (“clasts”) would get wet and recrystallize as calcium carbonate, “healing” any nearby cracks.

    But as Brian Potter points out (and as Spencer wrote in this newsletter in 2021) much of the decay in modern concrete structures results from corroded steel rebar – a technology that wasn’t present in Roman concrete, and which allows modern concrete to be used in ways that the Romans could have never imagined. There are already options for slowing or preventing this kind of decay, including using stainless steel, fiberglass, or aluminum bronze rebar. But these solutions come at high cost, and ultimately it’s unclear if modern society wants its buildings to last longer than fifty or a hundred years. In the end, Potter seems skeptical whether this research will have any practical applications, and we wonder whether a careful reading of Stewart Brand’s work might have a larger impact.


  • The long, sordid, and ingenious history of birds transporting drugs in cute little backpacks.

  • Some Chuck E Cheese franchises still use floppy disks to program their animatronics shows. Somehow we were both shocked and utterly unsurprised to discover this.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members for supporting Scope of Work. Thanks also to Mich for getting us hooked on hot water bottles again.

Love, Anna, Kelly

p.s. - We made this neighborhood bingo card as part of a project we do each year, which you can take on your next walk around town.

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

6 Jan. 2023

Starting 2023-01-06, Scope of Work’s Reading Group is reading Adam Minter’s Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. Adam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology, and the environment. From the publisher:

In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter takes us on an unexpected adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more. Along the way, Minter meets the fascinating people who handle-and profit from-our rising tide of discarded stuff, and asks a pressing question: In a world that craves shiny and new, is there room for it all?