What We’re Reading v2

Worthwhile reads curated by the IDEO community

June 26, 2014
Reading Time
6 minutes

City of Buried Machines

What can we say of the mysterious world beneath us? The stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were filled with subterranean habitats: from Tolkien’s dwarven caverns to the underground society of H.G.Wells’s Morlocks to the mirrored dwellings of the dead described by Italo Calvino, the possibility of a universe hidden below our feet has both fascinated and inspired. So it was with healthy excitement that I read Geoff Manaugh’s recent post on his architecture blog BLDGBLOG, titled “City of Buried Machines.”

In a world where the super-rich have access to technologies that extend their reach by measures of scale, affecting everything from nanoscopic details to the larger landscape, a trend is emerging: the vertical footprints of buildings are not just ascending in a search for grandeur, but descending as well. The Guardian describes this new construction of underground rec rooms and home theaters as a form of “iceberg architecture” that leaves the possibilities and scope of a space only partially revealed by its external face. Manaugh specifically explores the unexpected scenario, reported in the New Statesman earlier this month, in which the massive tunneling machines used to create these below-ground rooms are being left at their dig sites, simply covered with concrete and abandoned when extracting them from the sites of their completed jobs would cost more than their worth. This, in turn, creates sub-caverns and hidden mysteries beyond what the owners and architects intended.

Who knows what we’ll see in the future? Will earthquakes shake these mechanical monsters to the surface? Will subterranean photographers stumble across the rusted control rooms, or will they just sit and molder under the earth as the world above them passes by?

Andrew Lovett-Barron, Designer and Software Developer, Palo Alto

Producer as Composer

What gives The Beatles, Radiohead, or Aphex Twin such a strong sonic feel? A lot comes down to the way the music is produced. Producers play such critical roles in composing a group’s sound that they are sometimes referred to as “invisible band members” or even auteurs, wielding artistic insight and technical skill to realize a singular vision. Virgil Moorefield unveils the multifaceted role of the producer and its wide-ranging, ever-evolving impact on recorded music in his book Producer as Composer.

Over the past half-century, the producer’s role has morphed drastically in a feedback cycle with the rapid development of recording technology. The job was utilitarian at first, finding the musical talent that would give a song the right affect when heard through the sonic “lens” of a recording. But producers soon began to take on a whole new artistic role, creating elaborate mixed soundscapes. With the advent of electronic music, the producer’s craft evolved once more, merging the roles of producer and composer together into a fluid artistic medium.

Producer as Composer is a rare glimpse into this historical development—a dance between artistic prowess, musical stewardship, and technologic expression. Through numerous analytic reference points, Moorefield deconstructs the design of pop music from many different eras to reveal not only how it works, but also what engenders its unique swagger. Do you know how your favorite music is designed? There is often a lot more to its catchiness than bubble gum.

If you’re interested in other pop music analysis, Owen Pallett analyzed songs by Lady Gaga, Daft Punk, and Katy Perry.

Aaron Soloway, Electrical Engineer Intern, IDEO Palo Alto

Works That Work

Right now I’m into Works that Work, a magazine of short essays for curious people. Each issue dives into a diverse range of subjects and projects, all connected through the theme of unexpected creativity and design.

The current issue is about designs from the past and how they shape the way we live in the present. One article tells the story of hundreds of thousands of bunkers that were built in Albania years ago for civil defense. The bunkers are now historical landmarks and have been repurposed for modern-day life as restaurants, cafés, and beach-side changing areas.

I’ve loved being taken away on an adventure with each story, learning how people experiment and solve design problems in different industries and places. It’s inspiring to see how they make things tangible and make a difference in ways big and small.

Works that Work is available in a print and downloadable PDF version.

Nivi Ramesh, Designer, Palo Alto

Malignant Computation

What will be the legacy of bitcoin when the mines stop yielding their gold? When it comes to cryptocurrencies, “mining” refers to the process of running through a vast number of calculations to validate transactions and ensure that the currency is functional and secure. In this piece on O’Reilly’s Radar site, Fred Trotter puts forward an analysis of the true cost of this kind of computation and the enduring impact it will have. Computational cycles take up resources: material resources and a great deal of electrical power. In the case of bitcoin mining, there is a definite drop in the enduring value that these mining operations create, because the computational resources that have been developed to make mining more profitable have become so specific that they can’t be used for anything else. So while a virtual currency is being generated through these actions, each mining operation reduces the capacity for future mining operations to create value.

What Trotter is hoping to explore is the idea of malignant computation, a type of computational resource use that he likens to cancer. Instead of creating value within a market, computation starts to happen solely for the sake of computation. He describes high-frequency trading on Wall Street as an example of this: an arms race of engineering and technique that serves no broader purpose other than outwitting those engaged in the same actions.

In the case of bitcoin, malignant computation is manifest in the purpose-built computers (ASICs) that are now the only viable option for profitable bitcoin mining. With these highly specialized computers, however, the return on value for mining a bitcoin given the amount of electricity used in the process is rapidly diminishing. If one considers the costs of engineering, system failures and upgrades, and purchasing ever more efficient ASICs in order to increase one’s haul, one might question the actual benefit of this computation in the first place.

Trotter explores some alternative options, such as litecoin and the donation of computation cycles to biomedical “big data” analysis in fields such as genomics and epigenomics, that could create a broader societal value from cryptocurrency mining.

Andrew Lovett-Barron, Designer and Software Developer, Palo Alto

Edited by Sara Breselor / Sara is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. She is a contributor to Wired, Communication Arts, and the Harper’s Weekly Review.