Friday, August 20, 2010

vintage stamps

On a more general postal matter, I have been increasingly dismayed by the dull stamp designs on offer each month by Australia Post. When they raised the price of local postage by another 5c recently, I finally cracked and have started searching elsewhere for beautiful stamps. Soon I found a philatelic treasure chest in a stamp and coin store in the city, in the form of a shoe box of unused vintage stamps. Here is a sample:

Now I have much more fun making up 60c on my letters and postcards! For those in America, this blog post mentions a good source for unused vintage stamps, and there is always ebay or etsy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

building as both a noun and a verb

A call for papers from the Cultural-Theory-Space Group at the University of Plymouth, for the conference "Fixed? Architecture, Incompleteness and Change" raises some interesting questions that are relevant to thinking about pneumatic tube infrastructure in buildings such as hospitals:
"Are buildings fixed objects? At what point is a work of architecture complete? Architects tend to consider a building as finished, fixed, upon the completion of building works. The unpopulated images of shiny new buildings in the architectural press are presented as a record of the building as a ‘pure’ art-object at its temporal zenith; the occupation of the building and its subsequent adaptation, alteration, personalization and appropriation by people is often perceived in terms of decline. ‘Fixed?’ aims to question this view of architecture.

An alternative perspective is that all buildings are incomplete and subject to change over time as the users constantly alter and adapt their surroundings in response to changing cultural and technological conditions. Architecture is appropriated both intentionally and instinctively. In this way, often beyond the control of the architect, through their lifecycle all architectures become responsive to people and place. In theoretical terms, a work of architecture can therefore be interpreted not only as an ambiguous physical form but also as a shifting, responsive cultural construct.

Proposals for both theoretical discussion and case-study based papers are invited that engage with or challenge the theme of incompleteness and change across architecture, design and the built environment. Possible strands include: - changing, transient and adaptive everyday architectures and modern vernaculars - the afterlife, use, occupation, adaptation and appropriation of ‘fixed’ designed buildings, spaces and places - architects responses to the challenge of incompleteness and life-cycle design"
The deadline for submissions is November 30th 2010 and more information can be found here.

The conference raises interesting questions about technologies in buildings such as hospitals which are usually outdated by the time they are built. Hospitals are often considered 'fixed' buildings, adhering to the 'order' of biomedicine, yet I found in my PhD research that hospitals are much more open to the creative practices of its inhabitants. My recent tour of a pneumatic tube system in a Melbourne hospital certainly reiterated that this is also the case with pneumatic systems.

The idea of incomplete buildings is aligned with mat-building philosophy, a great example of which was
Le Corbusier's (never built) Venice Hospital Project, represented in these collages in the MoMA collection. The conference will no doubt raise interesting points about how users adapt to architectural infrastructures, and how architecture adjusts to its users.

Sketch of one of the hospitals where I did fieldwork for my PhD, by my father, John Harris.

Monday, August 16, 2010

moving trash underground

One use for pneumatic tube systems, that I have not previously covered on this blog, is garbage collection.

A recent exhibition at Gallery RIVAA explored the way that garbage moves through tubes under Roosevelt Island, New York. The Roosevelt Island underground pneumatic waste disposal system was constructed in 1975. Since the opening of the island, residents have emptied their waste into garbage chutes which feed into pneumatic pipes that are transferred to the system's main station and then compacted, sealed off and exported to a landfill. There are many other cities where similar systems are in place, including waste disposal systems in hospitals and nursing homes.

Fast Trash was described on the exhibition website as:
"Part infrastructure portrait, part urban history ... [drawing on] archival materials, original maps, photographs, drawings, diagrams and video interviews to bring an invisible system to the surface, and asks what a community built around progressive policies and technologies can teach us about how we choose our infrastructure"
The exhibition received a lot of attention from bloggers (green bloggers, urbanite bloggers, architectural bloggers, art bloggers, NYC bloggers) and others online, demonstrating a public fascination with this technology. I particularly like this image of those working with the system, depicted in a New York Times review:
"The staff of eight full-time engineers perform regular repairs and maintenance on the system, monitoring the vacuum seals and gauges, which are often on the fritz. They have halted the engines for residents who panicked about missing false teeth, wedding rings and pocket books that have been sucked under the city’s streets. And even let them sift through a 12-ton pile of refuse"
For those interested, the exhibition website has a documentary, another site an interview with curator/architect Juliette Spertus, and here and here are some images from the exhibition. I would love to have seen the exhibition. With its video interviews with engineers, maps and other artefacts, it seems like an incredibly ethnographic portrait of pneumatic tubes; one that has captured the public's imagination.

Images from envac and fast trash.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

not just a big truck

Several days ago, the former US Senator Ted Stevens died in a plane crash in Alaska. A strong opponent of net neutrality, he famously, or infamously referred to the Internet as, not a truck where you dump things, but rather a "series of tubes" (see this excerpt from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart for a send-up and mention of pneumatic tubes - dubbed the information supertube - at the end, or here for a Techno Remix of Stevens' words).

The phrase, "a series of tubes", has been used by many in reference to pneumatic tubes, with links made between this communication/transportation technology and the Internet.

Image by Molly Steenson, taken at the New York Public Library whilst she was researching for her presentation "A Series of Tubes" about pneumatic tubes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

call for papers

A Call for Papers has just been put out by the journal Philosophy and Technology
. They write that:
"Technologies have been changing the world for a long time, at an increasing pace, with ever expanding scope and unprecedented impact. They profoundly affect human life and are radically modifying not only how we interact with, shape, and make sense of our world, but also how we look at ourselves and understand our position and responsibilities in the universe"
I'm not sure how considerably pneumatic tube systems are changing our position within the universe, but it is certainly interesting to think about how a 19th century, industrial era technology is changing hospital practices.

I took this photo at my favourite medical museum, Museum Boerhaave, in Leiden, Netherlands.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

personalised pneumatic tube system

Definitely not a quasi, pseudo, semi-feminist statement like Old Spice, a new Heineken commercial nonetheless brings pneumatic tubes into the home ...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

the inadequacies of job descriptions

At the beginning of his popular presentation for TED, Barry Schwartz outlines the job requirements of a hospital janitor. He points out that none of these requirements mention anything that involves other human beings, yet when janitors were interviewed by psychologists, much of their work involved human interactions and a degree of improvisation and 'practical wisdom'.

I was interested in the job requirements of hospital technicians who may be dealing with pneumatic tubes, and came across these job advertisements for a lab tech at Ochsner Health System and a diagnostic scheduling technician at St Luke’s Health System:

Lab Tech: Gross Room, Ochsner Health System

Duties: Accessions surgical cases, biopsies and autopsy specimens from various departments, and clients via Central Specimen Receiving (CSR), the train, pneumatic tube or courier. Verifies patient’s demographics, accessions patient information and test requested in Laboratory Computer. Accurately labels specimen containers tissue cassettes with assigned number. Assist Pathologist and residents in the gross dissection room. Maintains record of Gross Room workload and data entry. Records all specimen errors or discrepancies. Performs staining, autopsy specimen procurement under direct supervision by a Pathologist, Pathologist Assistant or Histopathology Supervisor. Demonstrates actions consistent with Ochsner Expectations as duties are performed on a daily basis.

Diagnostic Scheduling Technician, St. Luke's Health System

Duties: 7. Operates medical center equipment such as computers and software, phone systems, paging systems, intercoms, fax machines, copy machines, pneumatic tube system, and printers in order to perform the duties of the job. Accept change in a positive and professional manner while willingly learning unfamiliar tasks.

Whilst the job descriptions do mention work with other people (I have only included a section of the second job description), they do not explicitly describe the work that I am interested in: the adjustments, the ‘repair work’, the tinkering that technicians perform to get their work done. There are hints of this buried in words such as ‘record discrepancies’, ‘accept change’, ‘learn unfamiliar tasks’, however so much is left out. Although when does a job description ever really describe a job?

Monday, August 2, 2010

more tubes on the tube

I spent a little time, one evening, not so long ago, watching more YouTube clips about pneumatic tubes. I thought I'd share a few for those who might also want to while away some time in the rumbling whoosh of a few pneumatic tube systems.

Winner of the best catch-phrase went to Quick Tube System for their
“If we can lift it, we can land it … and we can land it soft” film clip. The sequel proves it by landing a capsule on an egg. There are a few promotional videos, here and here, and several computer animated models, including this rather mesmerising one with a groovy soundtrack. There is a glass tube trip and an interview with Stanford Hospital’s Chief Engineer, Leander Robinson, who plants a videocamera into a capsule during the video. For a few seconds there is a wonderful split screen capture of the inside and outside of the tube, and then a tracking of the capsule simultaneously on a computer screen. Finally, who would have thought that there would be a film noir made about pneumatic tubes? Below is the film clip for “Through a tube darkly” produced in association with St Olav’s Hospital and Swisslog.