The Weekender, August 24, 2018

1) “The Weird, Dangerous, Isolated Life of the Saturation Diver” (Atlas Obscura, 20 minutes, May 2018). If you want more about Shannon Hovey’s experience, he also did a reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) recently.

For 52 straight days this winter, Shannon Hovey woke up in the company of five other men in a metal tube, 20 feet long and seven feet in diameter, tucked deep inside a ship in the Gulf of Mexico. He retrieved his breakfast from a hatch (usually eggs), read a briefing for the day, and listened for a disembodied voice to tell him when it was time to put on a rubber suit and get to work. Life in the tube was built around going through these same steps day after day after day … while trying not to think about the fact that any unintended breach in his temporary metal home would mean a fast, agonizing death.

Hovey works in one of the least known, most dangerous, and, frankly, most bizarre professions on Earth. He is a saturation diver—one of the men (just about all have been men*) who do construction and demolition work at depths up to 1,000 feet or more below the surface of the ocean.

[ . . . ]

The world—and, specifically, the oil and gas industry—needs commercial divers like Hovey who can go to the seabed to perform the delicate maneuvers required to put together, maintain, and disassemble offshore wells, rigs, and pipelines, everything from flipping flow valves, to tightening bolts with hydraulic jacks, to working in tight confines around a blowout preventer. Remotely operated vehicles don’t have the touch, maneuverability, or judgment for the job. And so, a solution. Experiments in the 1930s showed that, after a certain time at pressure, divers’ bodies become fully saturated with inert gas, and they can remain at that pressure indefinitely, provided they get one long decompression at the end. In 1964, naval aquanauts occupied the first Sea Lab—a metal-encased living quarters lowered to a depth of 192 feet. The aquanauts could move effortlessly between their pressurized underwater home and the surrounding water, and they demonstrated the enormous commercial potential of saturation diving. It soon became apparent that it would be easier and cheaper to monitor and support the divers if the pressurized living quarters weren’t themselves at the bottom of the sea. At this moment, all around the world, there are commercial divers living at pressure inside saturation systems (mostly on ships, occasionally on rigs or barges), and commuting to and from their jobsites in pressurized diving bells. They can each put in solid six-hour working days on the bottom.

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3) “While We Sleep, Our Mind Goes on an Amazing Journey” (National Geographic, 26 minutes, August 2018). This is a really deep look at every hour of our sleep cycles, what happens, and what happens when we don’t get enough sleep — with tons of pictures from various sleep studies.

4) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: The Font Which Toppled a Government — Pro tip: don’t use today’s tools to make yesterday’s documents.

Tuesday: The Lake Which Killed Its Neighbors — Lakes can erupt. When they do, it’s bad.

Wednesday: Hug Me Dot — How to know if you can hug someone at a Mensa convention.

Thursday: How to Get a Good Cry In When In Japan​ — We’re going to make you cry and you’re going to pay us for it.


5) “Community Plumbing: A History of the Hardware Store” (Places, 22 minutes, July 2018). This is an interesting look at a business which was supposed to have disappeared but hasn’t. The article fawns over the neighborhood hardware store — and that’s unfair, as there are plenty of terrible ones — but the fact that it reads like a love letter adds to the story’s character. Thanks to Michael G. for the suggestion.

Headlines proclaiming the death of neighborhood retail remind me of all those articles a few years back that wrongly predicted the end of the library. Despite competition from big-box stores and the internet, many local hardware stores are doing all right. In 1972, the United States had about 26,000 hardware stores. Their number dropped to 19,000 by 1990 and 14,000 by 1996, but for the past two decades it has been fairly steady. Hardware Retailing reports a slight annual drop in the number of independent stores, but sales are strong (even increasing) at the ones that remain.

Why should we care about the survival of these quotidian spaces, with their ten-cent goods, at a time of crisis when many American cities lack affordable housing and clean water? I’d argue that the hardware store is more than a “common ground.” It’s a place of exchange based on values that are evidently in short supply among our political and corporate leaders: competence, intention, utility, care, repair, and maintenance. 8 In an era of black-boxed neural nets and disposable gadgets, hardware stores promote a material consciousness and a mechanical sensibility. They encourage civic forms of accreditation, resistant to metrics and algorithms. At some neighborhood stores, you can stop in for a couple of screws and be waved off from paying at the register.

6) “Why Songs of the Summer Sound the Same” (New York Times, 15 minutes but with an asterisk, August 2018). This is an interactive piece with a LOT of sound clips and infographics. It does a great job diving into the science behind earworms (that’s when a song gets stuck in your head, there aren’t any actual worms involved).

Have a great weekend!