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.

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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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Harvesting Winter

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IMAGE: A block of Thompson Lake Ice, hauled onto the surface with tongs. All photographs by Nicola Twilley.

In 1805, a twenty-three year-old Bostonian called Frederic Tudor launched a new industry: the international frozen-water trade.

Over the next fifty years, he and the men he worked with developed specialised ice harvesting tools, a global network of thermally engineered ice houses, and a business model that cleverly leveraged ballast-less ships, off-season farmers, and overheated Englishmen abroad. By the turn of the century, the industry employed 90,000 people and was worth $220 million in today’s terms.

By 1930, it had disappeared, almost without trace, replaced by an artificial cryosphere of cold storage warehouses and domestic refrigerators.

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IMAGE: The Thompson Ice House Annual Ice Cutting includes a pair of Clydesdales.

There are only a handful of places left in the United States that still practice the forgotten art of harvesting winter. A couple of weeks ago, I visited South Bristol, Maine, to take part in the annual ice cutting at the Thompson Ice House, a small wooden shack by the side of State Route 129 that claims to be “the only commercial ice house on the National Register of Historic Places to have stored naturally frozen ice harvested in the traditional way from a nearby pond.”

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IMAGE: Scored grid on the lake surface.

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IMAGE: Cutting the first raft.

When I arrived, several older men in worn overalls and plaid had already etched an oblong grid on the snow-dusted surface of the lake using an ice plough, leaving ghostly outlines of white rectangles stretching into the distance like some kind of 2D Continuous Monument. Ken Lincoln, the President of the Thompson Ice House Preservation Corporation, was firing up an early nineteenth-century gas-powered saw to carve out the channel leading to the ice house ramp. As the last owner of the commercial ice operation at Thompson Ice House, Lincoln had kept it running for half a century after the rest of the New England ice industry had vanished from the landscape. He finally got out of the frozen water business in 1985, re-opening the ice house as a working museum five years later.

10 Ice harvest museum

IMAGE: A small room to the side of the ice house serves as a museum. The window offers a view onto the sawdust insulation around the ice.

Inside the ice house, a couple of layers of ice blocks already glowed blue-white. They had been harvested a week earlier at the bidding of a Discovery Channel film crew. Ice, it seems, is hot this winter: Lincoln mentioned that National Geographic was coming to film later in the month, and, during my visit, an excitable woman was attaching a GoPro camera to a pike pole in order to capture footage for a forthcoming Timberland advertising campaign.

Gradually, without any formal announcement or fanfare, the day’s harvest got underway, using a collection of found and donated antique tools. Working in pairs, the men cut along parallel scored lines using heavy, two-handled ice saws. When the long rectangular raft floated free, they grabbed long-handled chisel-like tools called breaker bars, which, when dropped on the scored lines, broke the blocks up cross-wise. Finally, they steered each individual cake into the ice-house channel, using a pike pole to gently nudge and drag the slow-moving white cuboids through narrow band of black water.

15 Sawing the first cuts

IMAGE: Sawing the first raft.

31 First strip of blocks out V

IMAGE: Guiding the ice cakes into the ice house channel with a pike pole.

After the initial row had been harvested, as a sort of low-key demonstration, it was open season on the tools: everyone was free to try their hand at sawing, breaking, and steering the ice. I can report that sawing was the quickest way to warm up — dragging the unwieldy iron blades through twelve inches of ice was quite a workout. Steering was also surprisingly tricky: the cakes weigh more than 300 lbs each, and move through the water with the slow solidity of a container ship. Snapping individual blocks off the longer raft using the breaker bar was, however, a highly satisfying experience — one correctly positioned thrust, and, with a gentle crack, a newly carved block emerged in all its crystalline perfection.

47 Sawing team and channel

IMAGE: Sawing and steering.

57 Team carrying saws and breaker bars

IMAGE: Wielding a breaker fork.

26 Guiding the first blocks through the channel

IMAGE: Guiding the first blocks through the channel.

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IMAGE: An ice-block jam.

The business of getting the harvested ice into the ice house was a little less amateur-friendly. A pair of older guys in fluorescent fishing waterproofs dunked the ice cakes to sit them on a sled attached to a pulley system. The horsepower was provided by an ancient man in a battered pick up truck, rather than actual Clydesdales (which were, instead, giving rides to local kids). Once the dunkers raised their arms, the pick up driver reversed, and the glistening, translucent, oversized ice cube was hauled on a ramp to the top of a rickety wooden scaffold, where it paused for a brief moment, scattering rainbows in all directions like a giant prism, before picking up speed on its slide down into the ice house.

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IMAGE: Loading the ice cake onto the sled.

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IMAGE: Ice house ramp and pulley system.

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IMAGE: The ramp slopes down into the ice house.

Inside the ice house, the younger generation performed the slightly more hair-raising work of positioning the cakes. As the ice block paused for a moment, at the top of its ascent, someone would shout “ice inbound,” and, in a kind of combination of curling and Tetris played using only pike poles, the wranglers would crouch, ready to guide the heavy block, sliding fast on its icy undercarriage, into the next open slot.

Sometimes it worked, and the block accelerated into its slot with a satisfying thunk. Mostly, it did not, and the speeding ice cake careened off course, crashing into walls, chipping chunks off other blocks in a sparkling spray, and, sometimes, the old timers told me, breaking ankles.

74 Inbound ice block

IMAGE: Ice inbound!

88 Wrangling ice blocks in the ice house

IMAGE: Wrangling the ice blocks.

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IMAGE: Each ice cake weighs more than 300 lbs and is travelling at speed, making wrangling a sport for the nimble.

It looked like a lot of fun as I watched from above, perched on a ladder and peaking through a ventilation window, but my nerve was depleted after a panic-inducing drive through a winter storm to reach the pond. Next year, maybe…

The ice house itself is an interesting architectural technology. As Gavin Weightman writes, in his highly recommended history, The Frozen-Water Trade, nineteenth-century ice entrepreneurs knew that “there was no way of preventing ice from melting once the air temperature rose above freezing; it was a matter of finding how best to slow down the inevitable thaw.”

It was not enough to protect the ice from the warm air around it, for the interior of an icehouse has complex atmosphere of its own.

Before Frederic Tudor industrialized the frozen water business, wealthy landowners in Europe and North America had built underground, stone- or brick-lined ice houses on their estates in order to be able to enjoy delicate ices and jellies in the height of summer. Tudor’s first ice house, in Havana, Cuba, was completely different: entirely above ground, and built of wood, with a layer of sawdust between double walls as insulation.

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IMAGE: The ice house half-full, as we broke for lunch (truly excellent homemade chilli and whoopie pies).

This revolutionary model, with a pitched roof to provide adequate ventilation, worked rather well, limiting shrinkage to less than twenty-five percent. It soon caught on across America’s ice belt, from Pennsylvania to Maine. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, no New England pond or lake was without one. But the wooden structures have a tendency to either burn or fall down — as the ice melts and shifts slowly over the summer, they sag, leaning ever further southward — and, as the ice trade dried up, its storage infrastructure vanished, too.

Even the Thompson Ice House is actually a reconstruction, built on the same site, to the same plan, and from the salvaged materials of the original ice house, which, after 150 years of service, was in rather a dilapidated state.

Its steeply pitched roof helps dissipate the rising heat, and a subterranean drain deals with meltwater, so that, carefully packed, the ice lasts through the summer. These days, however, the Thompson ice is mostly used up in one epic burst: a July ice cream social, open to all, but undoubtedly most heartily enjoyed by those who worked to store the cold five months earlier.

Otherwise, the ice is sold, a dollar a cake on the honour system, to sport fishermen. With fewer air bubbles, natural ice melts more slowly than the artificial kind, and a good block will apparently last up to a week out on the water.

93 Ice block layer

IMAGE: The more tightly the ice is packed, the longer it lasts, so broken chunks are used to patch any gaps.

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IMAGE: Packed ice from the side. The white snow ice is of lesser quality and melts more quickly.

At its peak, at the end of the nineteenth century, the frozen-water trade kept a rapidly urbanising America fed and watered. Cakes of natural ice were the refrigerant in Gustavus Swift’s pioneering rail shipments of slaughtered meat, in the Great White Fleet’s banana boats, and in the breweries set up by new German immigrants, enabling them to make lager beer all year round. Funnily enough, despite being a thriving industry, it barely figures in official statistics: as Gavin Weightman explains, “since it could be classified as neither mining nor farming, it was not subject to any taxes that would have given federal or state governments an interest in it.”

66 Ice blocks

IMAGE: Ice cakes floating in the channel.

115 Harvested rectangle 460

IMAGE: A harvested rectangle.

Although it’s hard to imagine the commercial natural ice industry ever competing with its artificial rival again, I left my day of ice harvesting convinced that, providing climate change does not rule it out, a local, small-scale revival of the frozen-water trade would be a very good thing. For one thing, it forces communities to pay attention to the water quality in their local lakes and ponds. Then there’s the fact that ice harvesting is an inherently communal activity that brings together neighbours and strangers alike. And, if even small parts of the local food system can use the freely provided bounty of winter where possible, rather than its the electricity-hungry artificial counterpart, that can’t help but increase resiliency overall.

Besides, what better way to demonstrate the central role that cold plays in our contemporary lives than by experiencing the enormous physical effort once expended to achieve it?

Posted in Artificial Cryosphere, Day Out | 3 Responses

Ice-cream Orchestra

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IMAGE: Emilie coaching a licker through performance anxiety.

Last week, in a former bodega in Alphabet City, food designer Emilie Baltz and smart object designer Carla Diana conducted the second performance of their “Lickestra” — a “musical licking performance” involving conductive ice cream cones, four volunteers, and a pre-recorded soundtrack of peculiar tones and baselines created by musician Arone Dyer of Buke&Gase.

Lured by the promise of free ice cream (a surprisingly spicy chile hot chocolate from Big Gay Ice Cream), I volunteered as one of the first four unsuspecting performers. We each crawled into a white plinth, crouching in the dark until Emilie invited us, one by one, to rise head and shoulders through the opening, and tune up.

“Know your instrument!” Baltz encouraged, as I tentatively leaned in to lick the ice cream in its white cone holder.

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IMAGE: Empty podium with cone holder.

10 Lickestra podium with ice cream and shadow 460

IMAGE: Ice cream in position.

A curious tinkling, like one of the lesser-used ring tones on my phone, started, and just as quickly stopped, triggered only when my tongue was touching the ice-cream. My three fellow musicians took their turn discovering their own tones — a Casio-esque organ sequence, a synthetic buzzing and farting, and a standard issue drum track overlaid with a xylophone melody — and then all four of us rose into position and started to play.

With stage lights blinding my eyes and chocolate smudges all over my face (it’s harder to get the ice cream in your mouth when you’re not holding it!), my embarrassment at sticking my tongue out in public battled with my realisation that the more creative I was with my licking technique, the more rhythmically and tonally complex the sounds of my ice cream became. At one point, in a flash of inspiration, I wiggled my tongue from side to side on the ice cream and earned a burst of applause for the resulting arpeggio.

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IMAGE: Lickestra performers.

Later performers seemed more liberated, diving straight into elaborate tongue acrobatics. Some even began to coordinate their licking, consciously bringing their instruments together in an orchestral improvisation. I’m not sure our foursome ever reached that point, but the crowd cheered us on, nonetheless, and I felt like a (very minor) star when I stepped down from the stage.

VIDEO: An iPhone recording that doesn’t do the Lickestra justice, sorry.

When I climbed into my Lickestra podium, I thought of it as a food design stunt — a wonderfully weird gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. But, after having to concentrate on the act of licking under spotlights for five minutes, I realised that Lickestra is actually a very clever piece of experience design, carefully nudging each performer to become conscious of the balletic range and possibility of their tongue as the primary instrument through which they interact with ice cream.

The sound, despite being billed as the central element of the experience, was actually just a prop, designed to help us discard our deeply embedded sense of public ice cream-eating etiquette and play with the gestural vocabulary of our tongues as they conveyed food to our mouths. The resulting experience was fun, funny, and a little uncomfortable, but also extremely thought-provoking — after all, if changing the material our spoons are made of can shift our taste perceptions, it seems likely that designing new choreographies for our tongues, lips, and hands while eating could have a similarly transformative effect.*

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another of Baltz’s recent projects was curating the cocktail menu at the Museum of Sex’s new bar, PLAY. “The idea for Lickestra definitely drew on my work there,” Baltz explained later. “Because they’re on stage, everyone immediately thinks, ‘I need to lick really well’ — but what does that actually mean?”

A very good question indeed!

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IMAGE: Lickestra performer.

*While travelling in China last month, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the tongue/teeth coordination required to strip the meat and cartilage from the bone while eating things like ducks’ tongues or chicken feet is not simply the extra work that is unfortunately required in order to eat all parts of the animal, but rather an extended oral experience that actually contributes to the flavour of the dish.

Thanks to gelato aficionado Alissa Walker for the tip!

UPDATE: This video of Lickestra by MOLD includes an interview with Emilie Baltz and Carla Diana, as well as a small cameo by me. With ice-cream on my face.

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