Three Strikes

A quick promotional note about three events that I’m excited about — and will be speaking at — in the next few weeks.

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First of all, if you’re in New York City this weekend, I’ll be speaking as part of a panel discussion at Gizmodo’s Home of the Future. One of a series of awesome free talks, workshops, parties, and conversations being held inside a custom-built apartment filled with the latest domestic gadgets, tele-presence robots, and virtual entertainment, my panel is titled “Food of the Future: What We’ll Eat Next.”

Several of my fellow panelists should be familiar to Edible Geography readers: Miriam Simun, the artist behind Ghost Food and Human Cheese; Emilie Baltz, the food designer who created the world’s first lickable ice-cream orchestra; and Saul Colt, from NYC’s innovative Windowfarms LLC. Our moderator, Alissa Walker, is Gizmodo’s Urbanism Editor—some of you may remember her as the fabulous lady behind the megaphone during Foodprint LA’s foodscape walking tour.

The panel runs from 5-6:30pm, and it’s free, but you should RSVP here. And, if the chance to listen to our thoughts on how we’ll grow, buy, store, and eat food in the future isn’t compelling enough, you’ll also be able to sample Hop Tech 431, the beer of the future brewed by Brooklyn’s own Sixpoint using a mysterious experimental hop (take a sip every time I mention refrigeration).

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Next up is the MacroCity conference in San Francisco on May 30th and 31st, where Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG and I have the daunting task of coming up with closing remarks after two days of incredible field trips and fascinating speakers looking at the “numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.”

Tickets are available here, with nice discounts for students and non-profits. Thanks to the generosity of the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, who are organising the conference, I have one “Basic Pass” available to give away to a lucky stranger; email me if you are that person! [Update: it's gone!]

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And, finally, I’m extremely honoured to have been invited back to MCA Denver to participate in Re-Mixed Taste, a special tenth anniversary season of their legendary lecture series “featuring encore presentations of the best lectures of all time.” As always, I am tormented by the fact I can’t attend the entire series (who wouldn’t want to go to a talk on Existentialism & Giant Vegetables, or Sigmund Freud and Machine Guns?), but, if you’re in town, you can and should!

I’ll be doing a new-and-improved version of my 2012 talk on artificial flavour, paired with the inimitable Geoff Manaugh on urban spelunking. It will, as always, be a lot of fun: tickets are available here.

Hope to see you at some or all of these — please do say hi, as there’s nothing I like more than realising that the faceless, anonymous people I write this for are such clever and charming individuals in real life.

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Fromidable!

Posted mainly for the pleasure of typing “Fromidable!” repeatedly.

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Thanks to the wonders of Canada’s bilingual labelling laws, and Loblaw’s stupendous “No Name/Sans Nom” brand packaging, we now have a fantastic new adjective to describe Johnny Hallyday’s greatest hits. And, of course, processed cheese spread. Fromidable!

Posted to Twitter by @Wheeler, discovered via @doingitwrong.

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Mouldscape Architecture

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IMAGE: Metamorfos 0611, Hans Jörgen Johansen via All Good Found/Liljevalchs.

These atmospheric photographs document mould landscapes grown by Hans Jörgen Johansen.

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IMAGE: Metamorfos 0803, Hans Jörgen Johansen via All Good Found/Liljevalchs

The Swedish artist is pioneering the practice of mouldscape architecture: designing and cultivating his way through a catalogue of horticultural styles, from the romantic to the formal, on a two-foot-square base of pasta sheets, bread, and bacon fat.

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IMAGE: Houndstooth, Hans Jörgen Johansen via All Good Found/Liljevalchs

A Capability Brown for our era of microbial awareness, Johansen’s decay gardens apply horticultural principles at a new scale and in a new medium, with stunning results.

Discovered via Kottke.org.

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Dot Bio

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IMAGE: Mycorrhizal fungi connected to plant host roots. Photo: Yoshihiro Kobai, NWO.

Last week, I received a press release promising that, as of April 14, 2014, “the organic world will have its own space on the Internet”: .bio.

I was, naturally, rather intrigued. Was .bio to be a Gibsonian matrix, in which otherwise discrete, glitchy, flesh-and-blood organisms could upload and outsource their voltage-based central nervous systems to a branded, interconnected digital network?

Or, instead, perhaps .bio represented a ground-breaking attempt to create a human-accessible portal to the so-called “Internet of Plants” — the network of mycorrhizal threads through which individual tomato plants spread the word about imminent aphid attacks and other pressing issues?

Sadly, ICANN’s vision for the new .bio domain is not quite that ambitious. Dot bio has been launched as part of a huge expansion of the Internet’s naming system, including other top-level domains such as .farm, .land, and .sexy, and is envisaged as a “very special new domain space” related to “many different fields linked to science, nature, and life.” Starting Dot, the company licensed to operate the new extension, suggests that a .bio extension is perfect for biologists, autobiographers, and, especially, anyone who wants to demonstrate their “commitment to an organic lifestyle.”

Indeed, because “bio” is commonly used to refer to organically grown products in several European Union countries, any would-be registrant who is connected to agriculture, food, and farming (whether as producer, processor, or retailer) will not be allowed to buy a .bio name unless they comply with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements’ Principles of Organic Agriculture.

Further, in their .bio policy document (pdf), Starting Dot explains that names that violate organic agricultural principles, such as <gmo.bio>, <fertilizers.bio> or <pesticides.bio>, will be banned.

In the next breath, however, Starting Dot trumpets the desirability of a .bio extension for biotech companies and laboratories. It seems that the nomenclature through which we police various categories of nature is as fuzzy in URL as it is IRL.

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Dietary Superpowers

The better part of an aisle of in most pharmacies and supermarkets is usually dedicated to dietary supplements: vitamins, minerals, and extracts that promise various flavours of biological optimisation, from an immune system boost to healthy joints or even stronger fingernails. Even a trip to Starbucks offers the option of ingesting substances that will speed up your metabolism (green tea) or your brain (caffeine).

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IMAGE: Vitamins, via.

But what if tweaking your diet could go beyond improving what you were born with, and instead endow your body with entirely new capabilities?

A recent article on the BBC surveyed a subculture within the bio-hacking movement, in which humans attempt to acquire animal sensory perception.

At the relatively tame, though still awe-inspiring, end of the scale, we find a handful of blind people who have developed the ability to navigate their environment using echolocation. Of course, their tongue clicks are within the human acoustic range, unlike the ultrasound squeaks of bat or dolphin sonar. Nonetheless, through careful training, their perceptual world has been expanded beyond the limits of the typical human sensory apparatus.

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Animal Superpowers, 2008, Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada.

Another approach is to use prosthetics. Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada’s Animal Superpowers, for example, is a range of brightly coloured wearable devices give children the temporary ability to emulate ant, giraffe, and bird perception.

Still others take the plunge into full-on bodily modification. Peyton Rowlands, a 19-year-old member of citizen biohacking collective Science for the Masses, inserted a neodymium magnet under the skin of the middle finger of his left hand in an attempt to mimic the ability of birds, sharks, and bacteria to detect magnetic fields.

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IMAGE: Peyton Rowlands with his bandaged magnet finger, via.

Although the procedure sounds rather excruciating — he performed the insertion without anaesthetic, and his body eventually rejected the magnet—the resulting perceptual shifts were fascinating. As Rowlands told the BBC, thus equipped with magnetoception, his environment resonated with the otherwise invisible vibrations of electrical current, rising and falling with proximity to household electronics and pylons:

You feel a slight buzz once you get within a couple of inches of basically anything with electricity running through it. It’s a very interesting sensation, kind of crazy. One of the things that I noticed is that DC current often felt similar to a ferrous metal or another magnet, a static bubble pushing or pulling against you, as opposed to AC currents which were much more like the kind of pins and needles feeling people describe.

Rowland’s latest project, however, does not rely on training, prosthetic additions, or physical modification. Instead, it could be described as dietary bio-hacking. By cutting retinal (part of the Vitamin A complex) out of his diet, he is hoping to force his body to develop near-infrared vision.

It is — if it works — a dietary anti-supplement that bestows sensory superpowers.

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IMAGE: Electromagnetic spectrum via the Universities Space Research Association.

The strategy is inspired by tilapia (and other freshwater fish), which use a different form of Vitamin A, dehydroretinal, to bind with their opsins (the retina-based proteins that turn light into an electrochemical signal). In humans, opsins preferentially bind with retinal to form rhodopsin; in freshwater fish, it’s more common for dehydroretinal and opsin combine to form porphyropsin. The difference between the two light-sensitive visual pigments is small at the blue end of the spectrum, but porphyropsin is progressively more sensitive than rhodopsin at longer wavelengths.

The result is that freshwater fish can spot tasty infrared-reflective shrimp in murky lakes and streams, and humans cannot.

Because the human body is capable of metabolising and using dehydroretinal, if forced, Peyton Rowlands and his Science for the Masses colleagues have reasoned that a diet that cuts out all retinal but contains dehydroretinal will enable them to see a tiny bit beyond normal human vision, into the near edge of the infrared band.

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IMAGE: Image from Predator 2, via.

What would that mean? Not Predator-style heat vision, unfortunately — if it works, this near-infrared augmentation would only extend a human’s visible light spectrum from its current edge at about 700 nanometres up to 790, which is not sufficient to detect thermal traces at room temperature.

Instead, according to Jeffrey Tibbets, Science for the Masses’ medical expert, this diet-enhanced vision would be more akin to Sony’s Nightshot feature — the infamous filter that users quickly realised allowed them to see through people’s clothing. Beyond naked humans, however, by following this alternative-A diet, Tibbets expects that:

A person would be enabled to see through darkly tinted car windows, or sunglasses with ease. Although investigators generally use ultraviolet light to pick up body fluid stains, infrared works just as well. Even old faded papyrus manuscripts and otherwise illegible faded books would be an easy feat for our augmented friend. One limiting factor of how far a person can see is the amount of particulate matter in the air. Infrared light cuts through fog, haze, and dust to a degree that would enable this person to have much sharper vision at a distance than a non-augmented human.

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IMAGE: Sony’s NightShot feature in action, via.

Not everyone is so sure that dietary superpowers can be so easily achieved, arguing (both persuasively and poetically) that the eye will only see itself — that a device built of warm-blooded cells will blind itself with its own thermal signature. There’s also a concern that, whether or not humans can develop the physical ability to detect IR in our environment, we can’t evolve the neural structures to translate it into a comprehensible visual signal quickly enough.

On the other hand, Tibbets points out that he and his bio-hacking colleagues are merely following in the footsteps of the United States Navy, which apparently already successfully tried this experiment on sailors during World War II.

They fed their sailor guinea-pigs with a diet low in normal sources of Vitamin A but supplemented with the livers of walleyed pikes, and, according to Perception, a psychology textbook, “over several months, the volunteers’ vision changed, giving them greater sensitivity to light of longer wavelengths.”

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IMAGE: The infrared-detecting sniperscope from the June 1946 issue of Popular Science.

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IMAGE: Today’s Aviator Night Vision Imaging System (ANVIS) AN/AVS-6, courtesy PEO Soldier.

The experiment was aborted, however, when researchers developed primitive “image converter tubes” — the predecessor of today’s nightvision goggles — that translated infrared light into the visible spectrum. The wearable device beat the bio-hack: the mechanically augmented human took precedence over the diet-adapted one.

Technological enhancements and cyborg transhumanism aside, however, it’s somewhat fascinating to reflect on the way in which our diet generates our perceptual universe, which in turn is precisely tuned to the luminosity of our environment.

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IMAGE: Vintage Violence, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011, from Infra by Richard Mosse. Mosse uses a discontinued infrared film called Kodak Aerochrome to document the contested and bloody landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The wavelength of the peak irradiance of sunlight on earth surface is 500 nanometres (the same is true of moonlight, which is simply reflected sunlight), which happens to be the peak absorbence of rhodopsin, meaning that the retinal in our diet is perfectly adapted to give us maximum sensitivity to available natural light.

But the different structures of Vitamin A allow for a sort of “spectral tuning,” exploited by fish , and perhaps soon Peyton Rowlands, to adapt their vision to the murkier haze of underwater — or, indeed, contemporary — life.

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Happy Hour Again

Although I have today off (I’m giving a talk about my favourite subject, artificial refrigeration, at The Berlage in Delft), for the past couple of weeks I’ve been happily posting more booze-related stories over at Gizmodo each Friday at 5pm.

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IMAGE: Six almost-identical prototype glasses being tested during the final round in the design process.

Last week’s alcoholic adventure was a look at the the world’s first stout-specific beer glass, developed as a collaboration between Left Hand Brewing, of Longmont, Colorado, Rogue Ales of Newport, Oregon, and Spiegelau, a 500-year-old German glass company that became part of the Riedel empire in 2004.

The design process by which the team arrived at a drinking vessel whose form enhances the best characteristics of the beer style is fascinating. I asked the brewers—Brett Joyce of Rogue and Eric Wallace of Left Hand—if they could imagine an inverse process: reverse engineering a new beer style to fit a particular glass. “We’re good,” laughed Joyce. “But we’re not that good.”

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IMAGE: Spiegelau’s IPA-specific glass (left) and stout-specific glass (right).

Spiegelau’s Matt Rutkowksi hinted that more style-specific glasses are on the way, with the collaborators sworn to secrecy. Joyce’s fingers are crossed that it’s a barleywine-specific glass: “It’s under-appreciated, and it needs the right glass—something smaller volumetrically, which teases out the bitterness to balance its sweetness.”

Wallace’s vote went for a glass optimized for the flavour and mouthfeel of sour beers, while Rutkowski suggested that the complexity of barrel-aged beers merits a better vessel—which may or may not be a hint as to what to expect from Spiegelau in the coming year.

You can read the story, including my review of the glass’s performance, here.

Meanwhile, the week before, I wrote about a new line of cocktail bitters designed by three New York-based ethnobotanists as a teaching tool: a way to a way to represent the plants of a particular place, and also to tell a story about the traditional culture and plant knowledge of that place.

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IMAGE: Shoots and Roots bitters.

From roots used by black bears to calm stomach upsets to the spectacular clitoria flower, the ingredients in each Shoots and Roots bitters blend are all listed (most bitters makers keep their recipes a closely-guarded secret) and accompanied by detailed descriptions of the plants’ habitats and human uses. The result is a refreshing way to transform your cocktail into a natural history lesson. Check out the full post here.

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Ur-Pasta

In 1965, conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth created One and Three Chairs, a piece that consisted of one wooden folding chair, a mounted photograph of a chair, and a mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of “chair.” The question (aside from the inevitable “is this art?”) is, which representation of the chair is most accurate?

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IMAGE: Joseph Kosuth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. In the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Inspired by Kosuth’s work, and in homage to the anonymous and unsung designers of pasta shapes, artist Serkan Ozkaya partnered with architect George L. Legendre to create One and Three Pasta, an installation of 92 pasta shapes, their mathematical formulae, and their 3D printed representations currently on display at Postmasters gallery in Tribeca.

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IMAGE: Serkan Özkaya and George L. Legendre, One and Three Pasta, 2012/14. Photograph courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

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IMAGE: Installation detail, Serkan Özkaya and George L. Legendre, One and Three Pasta, 2012/14. Photograph courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Each shelf in the gallery features a single unit of pasta — a spindly vertical strand of cappellini, or the familiar bow-tie of farfalle — accompanied by a wall-mounted text showing its form represented as a series of equations and their 3D-printed solution.

The formulae are the work of Legendre, who published them in Pasta by Design in 2012. Orkan’s idea was to feed the CAD models generated by those equations into a 3D printer, and then display all three, side-by-side.

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IMAGE: Screen in progress, Serkan Özkaya and George L. Legendre, One and Three Pasta, 2012/14. Photograph courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Sadly, given my mathematical illiteracy, the equations mean nothing to me. But the invitation to compare the “real,” organic, flawed example of each pasta shape with its abstracted, ideal white plastic expression is irresistible. Sometimes, as in the lumaconi rigati, the 3D-printed incarnation is too clinical, its curves lacking the lazy, inviting irregularities of its wheat-based double.

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IMAGE: Lumaconi rigati, Serkan Özkaya and George L. Legendre, One and Three Pasta, 2012/14. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.

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IMAGE: Manicotti, Serkan Özkaya and George L. Legendre, One and Three Pasta, 2012/14. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.

In other cases, the two are identical but for material and colour, the 3D-printed version simply providing a ghostly echo.

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IMAGE: Farfalle, Serkan Özkaya and George L. Legendre, One and Three Pasta, 2012/14. Photograph courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

And, in still others, the plastic, ur-forms are the more exuberant of the two, uncoiling with an additional flourish despite the off-putting rigour of their origins.

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IMAGE: Scialatielli, Serkan Özkaya and George L. Legendre, One and Three Pasta, 2012/14. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.

The exhibition is on display at Postmasters until April 19, and is well worth a look if you’re in New York City.

Thanks to Katie Holten for the tip.

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The Lost Beer of Spring

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IMAGE: Great Divide’s Orabelle, Ninkasi’s Spring Reign, Sierra Nevada’s Southern Hemisphere Harvest, and Southampton’s Bière de Mars beers.

I spent some trying to track down traditional spring beers for Gizmodo, and ended up finding that, unlike the other seasons, there isn’t really any such thing. I did find a Lenten beer that you can live on for forty-six days without noticeable harm (medieval monks used to, and a journalist managed it in 2011), as well as a delightful-sounding Franco-Belgian style called bière de Mars that we’ve sadly forgotten how to make altogether (a drinking buddy of mine, Daniel Fromson, just wrote about it for Modern Farmer).

I also talked to Jeff Alworth, Portland-based author of the Beervana blog and The Beer Bible (forthcoming in Spring 2015), who shared some interesting insights into how the seasonal American craft brew market works. Taken as a whole, seasonal releases are an extremely popular category of craft beer, with a supermarket sales volume second only to IPA. Typically, each brewery will be allocated one SKU or shelf slot for their seasonal offering, so you’re unlikely see an Oktoberfest and a winter ale from the same company side-by-side.

The problem, as Jamie Emmerson of Oregon’s Full Sail brewery (one of my personal favourites) told Alworth, is that American consumers won’t buy a winter beer after January 1st.

Winter beer sales just completely drop off the map, even though January 1st is still the dead of winter. If they have winter beers sitting out on the shelf in that slot on January 1, they just don’t sell. And so then they have to come up with some kind of beer that’s sort of a spring seasonal, but, you know, it’s still January.

This leads to the free-for-all I describe in my Gizmodo post, with springiness translating into everything from a dark brown ale to a hazy, refreshing saison. Alworth added that true beer nerds get quite wound up about this kind of season inflation, accusing breweries of pursuing novelty for the sake of novelty — to which brewers simply throw their hands in the air and point at the sales figures.

It doesn’t help that spring is not unified by any shared cultural imagery in America: while the pumpkins and corncobs of Thanksgiving and autumn or the snowy, Christmassy sense of winter seem equally seasonally appropriate in Southern California or coastal New England, spring is largely a climatic event, and the country’s climate is extremely diverse. As Alworth concluded:

People just respond to spring as an actual season and it really varies. So, especially if you’re a national beer company, trying to figure out what beer will suit those different seasons is probably tough. I don’t know. This is the thing with spring beers. Nobody knows. Maybe you can promote coherence in the spring beer category?

Unfortunately, I think my post probably added to the incoherence rather than vice versa, but I did find it interesting to reflect that spring is perhaps the one time of year when you can drink a beer-based interpretation of your local terrestrial conditions, rather than a riff on the country’s shared seasonal shorthand.

You can read my post in full here; be sure to also check out Daniel Fromson’s take on bière de Mars and Jeff Alworth’s Beervana blog. I’ll be contributing a handful of Friday evening, booze-related “Happy Hour” posts to Gizmodo going forward, so if you have any suggestions for my forthcoming alcoholic adventures, please get in touch!

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Marine Dark Matter

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IMAGE: A fish captured during the Malaspina Expedition. Credit: CSIC / JOAN COSTA.

If you descend below two hundred metres in the world’s oceans, you enter the mesopelagic, or twilight, zone. The temperature plummets, pressure increases, light levels drop off quickly to almost nothing at all, and the water is filled with a continuous shower of “marine snow” — flakes of dead or dying plankton, algae, fecal matter, sand, and dust.

The fish that live in this zone are, to put it charitably, very strange-looking. There are blobfish, snailfish, slimeheads (known at your local fishmonger as orange roughy), the red-luminescence producing stoplight loosejaw, and the brownsnout spookfish, which is apparently the only vertebrate known to employ a mirror, as opposed to a lens, to focus.

What’s more, there are enormous numbers of these mesopelagic fish. In fact, there are so many that they create a sort of false sea floor: apparently, when sonar first began to be widely used during World War II, frustrated operators kept detecting what looked like solid ground at about 300 metres, even when they knew the ocean bed was a thousand or more metres deeper than that that. It proved to be an acoustic illusion created by the swim bladders of millions and millions of mesopelagic fish.

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IMAGE: Scale diagram of marine zones by Finlay McWalter.

Last month, a team of researchers published the results of a new mesopelagic census. Scientists had previously estimated that this zone contained 1,000 million tons of fish; the new census, led by Spanish National Research Council researcher Carlos Duarte, discovered that there are actually between 10 and 30 times more than that.

In other words, these odd-looking, little-known, and for the most part completely unharvested fish make up an incredible 95 percent of all marine biomass. All of a sudden, there are a lot more fish in the sea.

All these bristlemouths and lanternfishes had managed to hide from hungry humans because of their enhanced vision and pressure-sensitivity. According to Duarte, “They are able to detect nets from at least five metres and avoid them.” Large trawl nets are the primary technology humans use to count fish, and these net-avoiding fish were thus invisible and inaccessible to us: “marine dark matter,” as Jason Kottke puts it.

Duarte’s seven-month global circumnavigation used sonar and echo sounding instead, extrapolating mesopelagic fish numbers based on their acoustic backscatter. Not only did the expedition’s findings revise fish population numbers up by an order of magnitude, they also showed that the oceanic gyres — rotating spirals of plastic waste previously assumed to be marine dead zones — are mesopelagic hotspots, home to what Duarte calls “the largest fish stock in the ocean”:

This very large stock of fish that we have just discovered, that holds 95 per cent of all the fish biomass in the world, is untouched by fishers. They can’t harvest them with nets. In the 21st Century we have still a pristine stock of fish which happens to be 95 per cent of all the fish in oceans.

In the conclusion of their research paper, Duarte and his co-authors call for “technological developments to increase the capturability of mesopelagic fishes.” For their future survival, however, and despite their current abundance and possible deliciousness, one might be tempted to wish for the exact opposite.

Found via Kottke.org.

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Container Spotting

Freight Containers

IMAGE: Shipping containers, via.

Intermodal containers — the standardised steel boxes that carry 90 percent of everything* — are ubiquitous: stacked five or six high on enormous container ships, tracing their way across the landscape in long ribbons on railways or split up into individual units and hauled by lorries on motorways, before being built into Lego-brick-style fortresses at major ports.

But their ownership, contents, and routes are a mystery to most — the same orange box could hold rubber ducks, spearmint flavouring, and/or tins of cat food, it could be the property of an 86-year-old Taiwanese billionaire or a 165-year-old German company majority-owned by the City of Hamburg, and it could be on its way to Yokohama, the Gulf of Aden, or a logistics hub in suburban Philadelphia. And, although its exterior marking and colouring will provide some clues as to the box’s identity, the ability to decode that information is rather rare.

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IMAGE: The Container Guide.

Enter The Container Guide, a new book designed to answer the prayers of any aspiring container-spotters. In the words of its authors, Tim Hwang and Craig Cannon:

The Container Guide, drawing inspiration from classic Audubon birding guides, is a practical field guide to identifying containers and the corporations that own them. Inside you’ll find virtually every major shipping concern brought to life in full-color on durable, tear- and water-resistant paper. The included photographs, logos, and container colors will help you quickly identify the corporation behind almost any container you spot in the wild. Each company’s corresponding entry provides rich historical background and data on their revenue, trade routes, and habits.

Hwang and Cannon are gathering pre-orders for The Container Guide on Kickstarter right now, and aim to have it on backers’ bookshelves by January 2015.

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IMAGE: Containers stacked in port, via Gatekeeper USA, a “container security solution.”

Hwang is founder and director of the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, “a citizen alliance devoted to exploring and celebrating the large-scale built systems that make modern life possible,” while Cannon is the co-founder of Cultivated Wit and former Graphics Editor at The Onion.

They bring accordingly different motivations to their intermodal investigations: Cannon told me that he is particularly partial to Hanjin containers, “because I worked on a project that involved hand-painting container logos and grew fond of their ‘H’ mark.”

Meanwhile, Hwang is interested in spotting my own personal favourites: reefers (refrigerated containers), the crucial link in the global cold chain that connects growers and consumers around the world.

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IMAGE: Reefer plug poles at Maher Terminal, Newark, via Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue’s Geography of Global Transport Systems.

In fact, I will be contributing a short essay to the book, exploring the early days of reefer experimentation. Rose George, author of the recent book Ninety Percent of Everything, is also contributing a primer on the role and history of containers in shipping, and Luke Iseman of Boxouse will add yet another perspective, based on his experience of converting and living in a retired shipping container.

These additions to the classic field guide structure are intended, Cannon explained, “to make it fun to read both at home and in the field.”

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IMAGE: Shipping container doors contain identifying information. Photo via.

Curious, I asked Cannon whether there was already a subculture of container-spotters.

“Definitely,” was the response, with spotters dividing into two distinct tribes: those who track container ships, and those who track the containers themselves on port and on land. “Ship trackers,” he explained, “spend time on sites like MarineTraffic, observing shipping patterns and then posting videos of their sightings to YouTube. They’re usually looking for new or rare types of ships.”

Meanwhile, the container spotters focus on “port logistics and their favorite company’s containers”:

Given that containers are all the same size, choosing a favorite is really a matter of personal taste. [...] MOL is definitely a popular one — side note: here’s an article about creating the alligator logo. Personally, I like the Hanjin “H” mark and Hapag-Lloyd orange.

Hwang, on the other hand, confesses to being “an enormous fan of the Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) insignia with the flower design in the ‘O’,” while I am rather fond of the Maersk blue with a white star.

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IMAGE: The OOCL “Bangkok” on its maiden voyage, photographed by Daniel Eckhardt.

The book will offer the container-spotting novice a guide to parsing each box’s distinctive exterior plumage: the logo and colour, at first glance, but also the more detailed information hidden behind its unique ISO 6346 number. From that code, Cannon explains, “you can discern the owner, type of container (U = freight containers, J = detachable freight container-related equipment, Z = trailers and chassis, and R = refrigerated containers aka ‘reefers’), and the serial number for tracking.”

There are still many unanswered mysteries that the duo hopes to get to the bottom of in their research. Where are containers born? (Cannon pointed me to this video of a Chinese factory, which we both recommend watching on mute.) Can you tell the age of a container from its exterior? (Discontinued logos such as the MOL alligator provide one clue.) How many containers lie at the bottom of the ocean? Are there container hospitals, or do damaged ones just get scrapped?

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IMAGE: The MOL alligater and Maersk star on two model train set reefers.

I asked them to share the most surprising thing they have discovered in their early days as container nerds: for Cannon, it is the fact that Maersk is a real person’s first name, and that “flags of convenience,” in which a Danish ship is registered in, for example, Panama, in order to benefit from its lax regulations and reduced operating costs, are not only legal, but normal practice — roughly fifty percent of the world’s merchant marine fleet is registered in either Panama or the tiny African country of Liberia.

Hwang, on the other hand, has been amazed by “how political the competition between the companies is.”

The making and breaking of cooperative agreements between major shipping concerns — often with pretty dramatic titles like “The Grand Alliance” and “The New World Alliance” — are a big part of the global chess game of container trade.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the project will be the way it illuminates global trade routes: Hwang and Cannon are working with GIS specialist Xiaowei Wang (also of the Bay Area Infrstructural Observatory) to map container migration patterns.

World trade routes 460

IMAGE: A year of global shipping routes, visualised, 2009. Image by Bernd Blasius from “The complex network of global cargo ship movements,” Pablo Kaluza, Andrea Kölzsch, Michael T. Gastner, and Bernd Blasius, J. Royal Society: Interface, via Wired.

If all this has piqued your interest, you can secure your copy of The Container Guide here. While you wait for it to arrive, you can feed your container curiosity by looking back at the BBC’s Box project, which tracked one container’s movements and contents over the course of a year, taking auto parts from Brazil to Japan, and tape measures from Shanghai to a Pennsylvania outlet of Big Lots. You can also pick up a copy of Mark Levinson’s history of containerisation, The Box, as well as, of course, Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything. And, if infrastructural appreciation is your cup of tea, why not sign up for the Bay Area Infrastructural Observatory’s first-ever conference, at the end of May? There are field trips to the Port of Richmond and a construction aggregate quarry, and I’ll be one of the speakers!

* 90 percent of everything that is not bulk or specialised cargo, such as oil (which accounts for a quarter of all goods transported at sea), iron ore, grain, grain, juice concentrate, and cars.

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