In what would turn out to be, in retrospect, the northernmost stop on the 16-month Venue itinerary, we drove into the iron ranges and boreal forests of Minnesota to see a 6,000-ton machine buried inside the earth.
One tour offers a look back at the mine's history, descending 2,300 feet below the surface of the earth to explore the old drifts and stopes. Soudan was Minnesota's oldest and richest mine until U.S. Steel ceased operations in 1963, and the iron extracted here fueled East Coast steel mills, where it was transformed into the nation's railways, machinery, bridges, and weaponry.
The tour begins with a disconcertingly cold, and extraordinarily loud elevator ride shuddering deep into the artificial caverns of this now-derelict site. The ride down is itself spectacular, an all-encompassing roar of noise and darkness, occasionally broken by the film-strip like regular appearance of voids that, we learned, were the entrances of other mine levels we were dropping past. Wondering what was on that level—or that level, or the next level, or this other one—as they flickered by in the gloom allowed the full, nearly overwhelming size of the mine to sink in.
While the historic tour lacks the hokey, interpretive dimension of many other such mine tours, the genuinely hive-like nature of the Soudan Mine—a volumetrically incomprehensible human-carved labyrinth—is only loosely communicated. Only half-joking, we speculated that this might very well be to keep unprepared visitors from experiencing a kind of existential panic upon descent into the 50-plus miles of subterranean chambers.
What sets the Soudan Mine apart, though, is the gigantic high energy physics experiment buried in its bowels. On the accompanying "science tour," visitors have the chance to marvel at the three-story tall, 6,000-ton MINOS "far detector," a kind of catcher's mitt for subatomic particles called neutrinos.
The neutrinos can make that journey without getting deflected or absorbed by layers of dense bedrock in between because they almost never interact with matter, zipping straight through earth, air, water, and, indeed, people, at a rate of 100 trillion per second, without leaving a single trace.
That same property, however, makes neutrinos extremely difficult to detect—they have been nicknamed the "ghost particle." Not altogether inaccurately compared to a huge camera, the MINOS detector is made from 485 iron plates studded with sensors, each of which is a buffer for slowing down and, in the end, capturing any neutrinos that spiraled through the room. With a trap rate of about one neutrino every two hours, MINOS is able to measure their oscillation speed, which, our guide explained, holds the key to understanding whether these ubiquitous yet elusive particles have mass, and, if so, how much.
While an advanced degree in physics would probably be necessary to tease out the specifics of the experiment and its findings thus far, it's equally awe-inspiring just to gaze on the dense nest of magnetized steel plates, bunched cables, and a multilevel maze of walkways that we were unable to explore, all constructed to capture evidence of an unlikely and otherwise invisible interaction. It's like sci-fi spy technology, with hidden machines picking up and decoding secret broadcasts within the earth.
Elsewhere in the cavern lay the remains of an abandoned earlier experiment designed to witness proton decay (an event that has still not been observed) and a cryogenic dark matter detector, hunting for WIMPs — the heavy, slow, and potentially even more difficult-to-detect cousins of neutrinos.
Interestingly, MINOS, while being an acronym for Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search, also refers to Minos, the mythological king who commissioned Daedalus's labyrinth but went on to be a judge in Hades, the underworld of lost souls.
In the end, it was hard not to wonder what will happen to the machine itself—so heavy it seems effectively pointless for anyone ever to dismantle it—and the brightly lit room it is now housed in. Within even 100, let alone 1,000, 10,000, or even hundreds of thousands of years, this huge gate of iron like a camera lens buried inside the earth, will inevitably fall into disuse, its experimental value gone, its costs too expensive to meet.
Then, someday, if it is not removed piece by piece in a mirror image of the construction process that brought it here, it will outlast even the pyramids, just as mysterious to future generations and just as geometrically abstract as those monumental constructions in the sand.
There are only half a dozen radon health mines in the United States, and all six of them are located within twenty minutes' drive of each other in western Montana.
The Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine is the oldest of the bunch, opening for business as Montana's first uranium mine in 1949, before transitioning its extraction focus to the more intangible resource of personal health just three years later.
"Radon therapy," the Free Enterprise brochure explains, simply "consists of series of daily visits to the Mine," where levels of the colorless, odorless, tasteless, and highly radioactive gas fluctuate between 700 to 2,200 picoCuries per liter of air. On average, they are about 1700 pC/l.
By way of contrast, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regards radon as a toxic carcinogen, classifies levels of 4 pCi/L or above as the "action point," at which homeowners should take steps to limit their exposure. In the eyes of the World Health Organization, radon inhalation is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the world. In the United States, it is responsible for about 21,000 deaths from the disease every year, according to EPA estimates.
Hence the somewhat niche appeal of radon therapy, at least in the United States. The American Medical Association roundly denounced it as quackery in the 1950s, and has not reconsidered its stance since. Elsewhere, particularly in central Europe, Russia, and Japan, radon therapy for arthritis relief is an established alternative medicine—despite the fact that no one knows quite how it works.
When Venue visited the Free Enterprise Health Mine, which charges $8 for a 60-minute visit, a pink-carpeted elevator furnished with a single red chair—it felt vaguely like the set of a David Lynch film—took us down to our subterranean destination: a wood-framed mine shaft, 87 feet beneath the surface. Immediately to our left, a vinyl curtain screened off a heated area, in which several elderly Mennonites were sitting on thrift-store arm chairs, lawn furniture, and a couple of La-Z-Boy recliners, chatting in dialect, playing cribbage, and leafing through magazines.
The rest of the shaft stretched around to the right, at a chillier 40 degrees. The rock walls glistened with damp, and were decorated with moss, graffiti, and rusted mining tools. The occasional padded bench sat under a heat lamp, offering a more solitary immersion.
Over the course of a typical treatment, clients spend between 30 and 60 hours down in the Health Mine, spread out over a 10-day period. The claustrophobic can stay above-ground, in an "inhalatorium" whose equally radioactive air is piped from a disused level immediately below the one we visited.
The invisible, healing (or poisonous) air, sold by the hour, is, of course, a nearly endless, renewable resource: pegged to the half-life of uranium-238, this Health Mine's subterranean wealth should be good for another 4.468 billion years.
Looming over and behind the town of Butte, Montana, is the extraordinary sight of an abandoned copper mine called the Berkeley Pit.
Like something from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, the massively altered, red-stained excavation forms a stepped and sculpted backdrop for the old brick buildings on the hill downtown.
The landscape is made almost uncomfortably spectacular, precisely by this state of post-industrial abandonment, a Gothic ruin in geologic form, where the planet has been forced to reveal its inner structure and grain, the sublime whorls of a continent stripped of their surface covering.
The current managers of the pit, as if in recognition of its Romantic appeal, greet you with a small gift shop selling postcards and trinkets.
Then, after walking through an eerie, steel-lined tunnel that feels as if you might be stepping into an antique submarine, you emerge onto—what else—a panoramic viewing deck. It's a widescreen porch overlooking the toxic vista, complete with interpretive panels and a handrail to lean on in anaesthetic rapture at the brown, rising waters below.
This is both appropriate—the grandeur of the flooded mine is almost impossibly, darkly beautiful—and seemingly an act of spatial sarcasm, as the mine is one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.
Indeed, the Berkeley Pit became briefly infamous in the 1990s when a flock of migrating geese landed on the waters and, as public understanding would have it, died shortly thereafter, possibly in minutes, possibly the very instant they touched the water.
The reality of the story is just as fatal but not nearly as immediate, mirroring the slow-motion menace of the pit's still-rising waters.
During its operation, the mine extracted 1.5 billion tons of material from what was then known as "the richest hill on earth," in the process consuming several communities on Butte's east side. Following its closure in 1982, a new threat emerged: with the pumps in an attached shaft switched off, contaminated groundwater began gradually filling the 1,600-foot deep maw.
Laden with arsenic as well as dissolved copper and zinc, and with a highly acidic pH of 2.5, the pit water is expected to reach the natural water table by 2020—at which point, the rust-brown soup would, theoretically, stop rising. Instead, it will flow out into the surrounding groundwater, poisoning the town it once both consumed and sustained.
A local group called PitWatch, which keeps its eye on the ominous lake, provides the interpretative signage on the viewing platform. They explain that a water-treatment plant has been built in anticipation of this moment, ready to begin treating and diverting pit water as it approaches "Critical Water Level."
"The plant." the boards promise, "is designed to operate forever," siphoning off just enough water to maintain the toxic lake in an uneasy, eternal equilibrium—within sight of disaster, but never, scientists promise, actually reaching it.
A second claim to fame came to this abyss in Butte when local biochemists Andrea and Don Stierle found that tiny extremophile organisms—that is, organisms that love (-phile) extreme (extremo-) thermal or chemical conditions—thrive in the polluted waters.
Even better, the Stierles found, these extremophiles could potentially help to decontaminate the site—and, by extension, other such heavy metal mines around the world—but also, in the process, lead to the design of new human medicines based on their novel biochemistries. Indeed, New Scientist reported back in 2006, the mine is "a source of novel chemicals that could help fight migraines and cancer."
The idea of extracting new medical treatments from creatures living in a contaminated mine in the foothills of the northern Rockies adds a strange, sci-fi sheen to the otherwise matte, unreflective waters steadily swelling over Butte.
As we drove onward to Missoula along one of the city's many mineralogically-named roads, Iron Street, the looming rock wall of the mine followed us in the rear-view mirror till we got back onto the highway and left this town, nestled underneath its namesake hill's hollowed-out shell, behind.
Screenshot of our own SimCity (called, for reasons that made sense at the time, We Are The Champignons) after three hours of game play.
In the nearly quarter-century since designer Will Wright launched the iconic urban planning computer game, SimCity, not only has the world's population become majoritatively urban for the first time in human history, but interest in cities and their design has gone mainstream.
In March 2013, the first new iteration of SimCity in a decade was launched, amidst a flurry of critical praise mingled with fan disappointment at Electronic Arts' "always-online" digital rights management policy and repeated server failures.
A few weeks before the launch, Venue had the opportunity to play the new SimCity at its Manhattan premiere, during which time we feverishly laid out curving roads and parks, drilled for oil while installing a token wind turbine, and tried to ignore our city's residents'—known as Sims—complaints as their homes burned before we could afford to build a fire station.
We emerged three hours later, blinking and dazed, into the gleaming white and purple lights of Times Square, and were immediately struck by the abstractions required to translate such a complex, dynamic environment into a coherent game structure, and the assumptions and values embedded in that translation.
Fortunately, the game's lead designer, Stone Librande, was happy to talk with us further about his research and decision-making process, as well as some of the ways in which real-world players have already surprised him. We spoke to him both in person and by telephone, and our conversation appears below.
• • •
Nicola Twilley: I thought I’d start by asking what sorts of sources you used to get ideas for SimCity, whether it be reading books, interviewing urban experts, or visiting different cities?
Stone Librande: From working on SimCity games in the past, we already have a library here with a lot of city planning books. Those were really good as a reference, but I found, personally, that the thing I was most attracted to was using Google Earth and Google Street View to go anywhere in the world and look down on real cities. I found it to be an extremely powerful way to understand the differences between cities and small towns in different regions.
Google has a tool in there that you can use to measure out how big things are. When I first started out, I used that a lot to investigate different cities. I’d bring up San Francisco and measure the parks and the streets, and then I’d go to my home town and measure it, to figure out how it differed and so on. My inspiration wasn’t really drawn from urban planning books; it was more from deconstructing the existing world.
Then I also really got into Netflix streaming documentaries. There is just so much good stuff there, and Netflix is good at suggesting things. That opened up a whole series of documentaries that I would watch almost every night after dinner. There were videos on water problems, oil problems, the food industry, manufacturing, sewage systems, and on and on—all sorts of things. Those covered a lot of different territory and were really enlightening to me.
Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?
Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.
Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.
Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive.
Using the zoning tool for the city designed by We Are the Champignons.
Twilley: I’d love to hear more about the design process and how you went about testing different iterations. Did you storyboard narratives for possible cities and urban forms that you might want to include in the game?
Librande: The way the game is set up, it’s kind of infinite. What I mean by that is that you could play it so many different ways that it’s basically impossible to storyboard or have a defined set of narratives for how the player will play it.
Stone Librande's storyboards for "Green City" and "Mining City" at the start of play.
Instead, what I did was that I came up with two extreme cases—around the office we call them “Berkeley” and “Pittsburgh,” or “Green City” and “Dirty City.” We said, if you are the kind of player who wants to make utopia—a city with wind power, solar power, lots of education and culture, and everything’s beautiful and green and low density—then this would be the path you would take in our game.
But then we made a parallel path for a really greedy player who just wants to make as much money as possible, and is just exploiting or even torturing their Sims. In that scenario, you’re not educating them; you’re just using them as slave labor to make money for your city. You put coal power plants in, you put dumps everywhere, and you don’t care about their health.
Stone Librande's storyboard for "Green City" at mid-game.
I made a series of panels, showing those two cities from beginning to late stage, where everything falls apart. Then, later on, when we got to multiplayer, I joined those two diagrams together and said, “If both of these cities start working together, then they can actually solve each other’s problems.”
The idea was to set them up like bookends—these are the extremes of our game. A real player will do a thousand things that fall somewhere in between those extremes and create all sorts of weird combinations. We can’t predict all of that.
Basically, we figured that if we set the bookends, then we would at least understand the boundaries of what kind of art we need to build, and what kind of game play experiences we need to design for.
Stone Librande's storyboard for "Mining City" at mid-game.
Twilley: In going through that process, did you discover things that you needed to change to make game play more gripping for either the dirty city or the clean city?
Librande: It was pretty straightforward to look at Pittsburgh, the dirty city, and understand why it was going to fail, but you have to try to understand why the clean one might fail, as well. If you have one city—one path—that always fails, and one that always succeeds, in a video game, that’s really bad design. Each path has to have its own unique problems.
What happened was that we just started to look at the two diagrams side-by-side, and we knew all the systems we wanted to support in our game—things like power, utilities, wealth levels, population numbers, and all that kind of stuff—and we basically divided them up.
We literally said: “Let’s put all of this on this side over in Pittsburgh and the rest of it over onto Berkeley.” That’s why, at the very end, when they join together, they are able to solve each other’s problems because, between the two of them, they have all the problems but they also have all the answers.
Stone Librande's storyboard for the "Green City" and "Mining City" end-game symbiosis.
Twilley: One thing that struck me, after playing, was that you do incorporate a lot of different and complex systems in the game, both physical ones like water, and more abstract ones, like the economy. But—and this seems particularly surprising, given that one of your bookend cities was nicknamed Berkeley—the food system doesn’t come into the game at all. Why not?
Librande: Food isn’t in the game, but it’s not that we didn’t think about it—it just became a scoping issue. The early design actually did call for agriculture and food systems, but, as part of the natural process of creating a video game, or any situation where you have deadlines and budgets that you have to meet, we had to make the decision that it was going to be one of the things that the Sims take care of on their own, and that the Mayor—that is, the player—has nothing to do with it.
I watched some amazing food system documentaries, though, so it was really kind of sad to not include any of that in the game.
Data layer showing ore deposits.
Data layer showing happiness levels. In SimCity, happiness is increased by wealth, good road connections, and public safety, and decreased by traffic jams and pollution.
Manaugh: Now that the game is out in the world, and because of the central, online hosting of all the games being played right now, I have to imagine that you are building up an incredible archive of all the decisions that different players have made and all the different kind of cities that people have built. I’m curious as to what you might be able to make or do with that kind of information. Are you mining it to see what kinds of mistakes people routinely make, or what sorts of urban forms are most popular? If so, is the audience for that information only in-house, for developing future versions of SimCity, or could you imagine sharing it with urban planners or real-life Mayors to offer an insight into popular urbanism?
Librande: It’s an interesting question. It’s hard to answer easily, though, because there are so many different ways players can play the game. The game was designed to cover as many different play patterns as we could think of, because our goal was to try to entertain as many of the different player demographics as we could.
So, there are what we call “hardcore players.” Primarily, they want to compete, so we give them leader boards and we give them incentives to show they are “better” than somebody else. We might say: “There’s a competition to have the most people in your city.” And they are just going to do whatever it takes to cram as many people into a city as possible, to show that they can win. Or there might be a competition to get the most rich people in your city, which requires a different strategy than just having the most people. It’s hard to keep rich people in a city.
Each of those leader boards, and each of those challenges, will start to skew those hardcore people to play in different ways. We are putting the carrot out there and saying: “Hey, play this way and see how well you can do.” So, in that case, we are kind of tainting the data, because we are giving them a particular direction to go in and a particular goal.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “creative players” who are not trying to win—they are trying to tell a story. They are just trying to create something beautiful. For instance, when my wife plays, she wants lots of schools and parks and she’s not at all concerned with trying to make the most money or have the most people. She just wants to build that idealized little town that she thinks would be the perfect place to live.
A regional view of a SimCity game, showing different cities and their painfully small footprints.
So, getting back to your question, because player types cover such a big spectrum, it’s really hard for us to look at the raw data and pull out things like: “This is the kind of place that people want to live in.” That said, we do have a lot of data and we can look at it and see things, like how many people put down a park and how many people put in a tram system. We can measure those things in the aggregate, but I don’t think they would say much about real city planning.
Twilley: Building on that idea of different sorts of players and ways of playing, are there a variety of ways of “winning” at SimCity? Have you personally built cities that you would define as particularly successful within the game, and, if so, what made them “winners”?
Librande: For sure, there is no way to win at SimCity other then what you decide to put into the game. If you come in with a certain goal in mind—perhaps, say, that you want a high approval rating and everyone should be happy all the time— then you would play very differently than if you went in wanting to make a million dollars or have a city with a million people in it.
As far as my personal city planning goes, it has varied. I’ve played the game so much, because early on I just had to play every system at least once to understand it. I tried to build a power city, a casino city, a mining city—I tried to build one of everything.
Now that I’m done with that phase, and I’m just playing for fun at home, I’ve learned that I enjoy mid-density cities much more then high-density cities. To me, high-density cities are just a nightmare to run and operate. I don’t want to be the mayor of New York; I want to be the mayor of a small town. The job is a lot easier!
Basically, I build in such a way as to not make skyscrapers. At the most, I might have just one or two because they look cool—but that’s it.
Screenshot from SimCity 4.
Manaugh: I’m curious how you dealt with previous versions of SimCity, and whether there was any anxiety about following that legacy or changing things. What are the major innovations or changes in this version of the game, and what kinds of things did you think were too iconic to get rid of?
Librande: First of all, when we started the project, and there were just a few people on the team, we all agreed that we didn’t want this game to be called SimCity 5. We just wanted to call it SimCity, because if we had a 5 on the box, everybody would think it had to be SimCity 4 with more stuff thrown in. That had the potential to be quite alienating, because SimCity 4 was already too complicated for a lot of people. That was the feedback we had gotten.
Once we made that title decision, it was very liberating—we felt like, “OK, now we can reimagine what the brand might be and how cities are built, almost from scratch.”
Technically, the big difference is the “GlassBox” engine that we have, in which all the agents promote a bottom-up simulation. All the previous SimCity games were literally built on spreadsheets where you would type a number into a grid cell, and then it propagated out into adjacent grid cells, and the whole city was a formula.
SimCity 4 was literally prototyped in Excel. There were no graphics—it was just a bunch of numbers—but you could type a code that represented a particular type of building and the formulae built into the spreadsheet would then decide how much power it had and how many people would work there. It just statically calculated the city as if it were a bunch of snapshots.
A fire breaks out in the city designed by We Are The Champignons.
Because our SimCity—the new SimCity—is really about getting these agents to move around, it’s much more about flows. Things have to be in motion. I can’t look at anybody’s city as a screenshot and tell you what’s going on; I have to see it live and moving before I can fully understand if your roads are OK, if your power is flowing, if your water is flowing, if your sewage is getting dumped out, if your garbage is getting picked up, and so on. All that stuff depends on trucks actually getting to the garbage cans, for example, and there’s no way to tell that through a snapshot.
Sims queue for the bus at dawn.
Once we made that decision—to go with an agent-driven simulation and make it work from the bottom up—then all the design has to work around that. The largest part of the design work was to say: “Now that we know agents are going to run this, how do schools work with those agents? How do fire and police systems work with these agents? How do time systems work?” All the previous editions of SimCity never had to deal with that question—they could just make a little table of crimes per capita and run those equations.
Manaugh: When you turned things over to the agents, did that have any kind of spatial effect on game play that you weren’t expecting?
Librande: It had an effect, but it was one that we were expecting. Because everything has to be in motion, we had to have good calculations about how distance and time are tied together. We had to do a lot of measurements about how long it would really take for one guy to walk from one side of the city to the other, in real time, and then what that should be in game time—including how fast the cars needed to move in relationship to the people walking in order to make it look right, compared to how fast would they really be moving, both in game time and real time. We had all these issues where the cars would be moving at eighty miles an hour in real time, but they looked really slow in the game, or where the people were walking way, way too fast, but actually they were only walking at two miles an hour.
We knew this would happen, but we just had to tweak the real-life metrics so that the motion and flow look real in the game. We worked with the animators, and followed our intuition, and tried to mimic the motion and flow of crowds.
We Are The Champignons' industrial zone, carefully positioned downwind of the residential areas.
In the end, it’s not one hundred percent based on real-life metrics; it just has to look like real life, and that’s true throughout the game. For example, if we made the airport runways actual size, they would cover up the entire city. Those are the kinds of things where we just had to make a compromise and hope that it looked good.
Twilley: Actually, one of the questions we wanted to ask was about time in the game. I found it quite intriguing that there are different speeds that you can choose to play at, but then there’s also a distinct sense of the phases of building a city and how many days and nights have to pass for certain changes to occur. Did you do any research into how fast cities change and even how the pace of city life is different in different places?
Librande: We found an amazing article about walking speeds in different cities. That was something I found really interesting. In cities like New York, people walk faster, and in medium-sized or small towns, they walk a lot slower. At one point, we had Sims walking faster as the city gets bigger, but we didn’t take it that far in the final version.
I know what you are talking about, though: in the game, bigger cities feel a lot busier and faster moving. But there’s nothing really built into the game to do that; it’s just the cumulative effect of more moving parts, I guess. In kind of a counter-intuitive way, when you start getting big traffic jams, it feels like a bigger, busier city even though nothing is moving—it’s just to do with the way we imagine rush-hour gridlock as being a characteristic of a really big city.
The fact that there’s even a real rush hour shows how important timing is for an agent-based game. We spent a lot of time trying to make the game clock tick, to pull you forward into the experience. In previous SimCities, the day/night cycle was just a graphical effect—you could actually turn it off if you didn’t like it, and it had no effect on the simulation. In our game, there is a rush hour in the morning and one at night, there are school hours, and there are shopping hours. Factories are open twenty-four hours a day, but stores close down at night, so different agents are all working on different schedules.
The result is that you end up getting really interesting cycles—these flows of Sims build up at certain times and then the buses and streets are empty and then they build back up again. There’s something really hypnotic about that when you play the game. I find myself not doing anything but just watching in this mesmerized state—almost hypnotized—where I just want to watch people drive and move around in these flows. At that point, you’re not looking at any one person; you’re looking at the aggregate of them all. It’s like watching waves flow back and forth like on a beach.
For me, that’s one of the most compelling aspects of our game. The timing just pulls you forward. We hear this all the time—people will say, “I sat down to play, and three hours had passed, and I thought, wait, how did that happen?” Part of that is the flow that comes from focusing, but another part of it is the success of our game in pulling you into its time frame and away from the real-world time frame of your desk.
Twilley: Has anything about the way people play or respond to the game surprised you? Is there anything that you already want to change?
Librande: One thing that amazed me is that, even with the issues at the launch, we had the equivalent of nine hundred man-years put into SimCity in less than a week.
Most of the stuff that people are doing, we had hoped or predicted would happen. For example, I anticipated a lot of the story-telling and a lot of the creativity—people making movies in the cities, and so on—and we’re already seeing that. YouTube is already filled with how-to videos and people putting up all these filters, like film noir cities, and it’s just really beautiful.
Screen shot from SimCity player Calvin Chan's film noir montage of his city at night.
The thing I didn’t predict was that, in the first week, two StarCraft players—that’s a very fast-paced space action game, in case you’re not familiar with it, and it’s fairly common for hardcore players to stream their StarCraft battles out to a big audience—decided to have a live-streamed SimCity battle against each other. They were in a race to be the first to a population of 100,000; they live-streamed their game; and there were twenty thousand people in the chat room, cheering them on and typing in advice—things like “No, don’t build there!” and “ What are you doing—why are you putting down street cars?” and “Come on, dude, turn your oil up!” It was like that, nonstop, for three hours. It was like a spectator sport, with twenty thousand people cheering their favorite on, and, basically, backseat city planning. That really took me by surprise.
I’m not sure where we are going to go with that, though, because we’re not really an eSport, but it seems like the game has the ability to pull that out of people. I started to try to analyze what’s going on there, and it seems that if you watch people play StarCraft and you don’t know a lot about it, your response is going to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m looking at; I don’t know if I should be cheering now; and I don’t know if what I just saw was exciting or not.”
But, if you watch someone build a city, you just know. I mean, I don’t have to teach you that putting a garbage dump next to people’s houses is going to piss them off or that you need to dump sewage somewhere. I think the reason that the audience got so into it is that everyone intuitively knows the rules of the game when it comes to cities.
Many of today's most original and bizarre visions of alternative worlds and landscapes come from the workshops of Hollywood effects studios. Behind the scenes of nondescript San Fernando Valley offices and warehouse spaces (if not outside California altogether, in the many other nodes of the ever-expanding global network of cinematic effects production, from suburban London to Wellington, New Zealand), lurk the multidisciplinary teams whose job it is to create tomorrow's monsters.
Spectral Motion, the effects house responsible for some of the most technically intricate and physically stunning animatronic creatures seen in feature film today, is no exception. Based in a small strip of anonymous one-story warehouse spaces squeezed in between a freeway and rail tracks, and overshadowed by a gargantuan Home Depot, Spectral Motion has developed monsters, effects, and other mechanical grotesqueries that have since become household nightmares, if not names.
Venue caught up with Mike Elizalde, CEO of Spectral Motion, on a cloudy day in Glendale to talk all things monstrous and disturbing. Our conversation ranged from the fine line that separates the grotesque and the alien to the possibility of planetary-scale creatures made using tweaked geotextiles, via the price of yak hair and John Carpenter's now-legendary Antarctic thriller, The Thing.
Elizalde, a good-humored conversationalist, not only patiently answered our many questions—with a head cold, no less—but then took us on a tour through Spectral Motion's surprisingly large workshop. We saw miniature zombie heads emerging from latex molds (destined for a film project by Elizalde's own son), costumes being sewn by a technician named Claire Flewin for an upcoming attraction at Disneyland, and a bewildering variety of body parts—heads, torsos, claws, and even a very hairy rubber chest once worn by Vinnie Jones in X-Men: The Last Stand—that were either awaiting, or had already performed, their celluloid magic.
The visit ended with a screening of Spectral Motion's greatest hits, so to speak, with in-house photographer and archivist Kevin McTurk—a chance to see the company's creations in their natural habitat. We walked back out into the flat light and beige parking lots of the Valley, a landscape enlivened by our heightened sense of the combination of close observation and inspired distortion required to transform the everyday into the grotesque.
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Geoff Manaugh: I’d love to start with the most basic question of all: how would you describe Spectral Motion and what the company does?
Mike Elizalde: We are principally a prosthetics, animatronics, and special effects creature studio, but we are also a multifaceted design studio. We do a lot of different kinds of work. Most recently, for example, in partnership with one of my long-time colleagues, Mark Setrakian, we built anthropomorphic bipedal hydraulic robots that engage in battle, for a reality show for Syfy. It’s called RCL—Robot Combat League. It’s pretty astounding what these machines can do, including what they can do to each other.
Battling it out in Robot Combat League with two robots—"eight-feet tall, state-of-the-art humanoid robots controlled by human 'robo-jockeys,'" in the words of Syfy—designed by Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion.
Nicola Twilley: Are the robot battles choreographed, or do you genuinely not know which robot will win?
Elizalde: Oh, no, absolutely—it’s a contest. It really is about which robot will emerge as the victorious contender.
RCL is not only one of our most recent projects, but it also shows that, here at the studio, we can do everything from a very delicate prosthetic application on an actor, to an animatronic character in a film, to something that’s completely out of our comfort zone—like building battling robots.
I always tell people that, if they come in here with a drawing of a car, we could build that car. It is a very diverse group that we work with: artists, technicians, and, of course, we use all the available or cutting-edge technologies out there in the world to realize whatever it is that we are required to make.
Manaugh: What kind of design briefs come to you? Also, when a client comes to you, typically how detailed or amorphous is their request?
Elizalde: Sometimes it is very vague. But, typically, what happens is we’re approached with a script for a project. Our job is to go through the script and create a breakdown and, ultimately, a budget based on those breakdowns. We take whatever we think we should build for that script and we make suggestions as to how each thing should look—what should move, what the design should be, and so on.
Other times, we’ll be working with a director who’s very involved and who maybe even has some technical knowledge of what we do—especially someone like Guillermo del Toro. He’s completely savvy about what we do because he used to own a creature shop of his own, so working with someone like him is much more collaborative; he comes to us with a much more clear idea of what he wants to see in his films. Lots of times, he’ll even show us an illustration he’s done. He’s the first one to say, “I'm not an artist!” But he really is. He’s quite gifted.
So he’ll bring us his illustrations and say, you know, “You tell me if it’s going to be a puppet, an animatronic puppet, or a creature suit that an actor can wear.” And that’s where our knowhow comes in. That’s how it evolves.
There are also times—with the robot show, for example—where they know exactly what they need but they don’t know how to achieve it. In those cases, they come to us to do that for them.
Twilley: Can you talk us through one of the projects you’ve worked on where you had to create your vision based solely on what’s in the script, rather than more collaborative work with the director? What’s that process like?
Elizalde: Well, I’d actually say that ninety percent of our work is that way. For most of the projects we work on, we do, in fact, just get a script and the director says, “Show me what this looks like.” But we love that challenge. It’s really fun for us to get into the artistic side of developing what the appearance of something will end up looking like.
We had a lot of fun working with a director named Tommy Wirkola, for example, who directed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. He was the director of Dead Snow, a really strange Norwegian film that involved this group of young kids who go off to a cabin where they’re hunted down by a hoard of horrifying zombie Nazi monsters. It’s really grisly.
Anyway, although Tommy did have really good ideas about what he wanted his characters to look like for Hansel & Gretel, there were certain characters whose descriptions were much more vague—also because there was such a broad scope of characters in the film. So they did rely on us to come up with a lot of different looks based on loose descriptions. In the end, the principal characters in the film were total collaborations between Tommy, myself, and Kevin Messick, the producer, and the rest of my team here at Spectral Motion, of course.
I’d say that’s a good example of both worlds, where you have some clear ideas about a few characters, but, for another group of characters, there really isn’t a whole lot of information or a detailed description. You have to fill in a lot of blanks.
Twilley: What kinds of things do you look for in a script to give you a clue about how a character might work—or is that something that simply comes out when you’re sketching or modeling?
Elizalde: In a script, we basically know what we’re looking for: “Enter a monster.” We know that’s what we’re going be doing, so we look for those moments in the script. Sometimes there’s a brief description—something like, “the monster’s leathery hide covered in tentacles.” That kind of stuff gives us an immediate visual as to what we want to create. Then we explore it with both two-dimensional artwork and three-dimensional artwork, and both digital and physical.
In fact [gestures at desk], these are some examples of two-dimensional artwork that we’ve created to show what a character will look like. This [points to statuette above desk] is a maquette for one of the characters in Hellboy II—the Angel of Death. This was realized at this scale so that del Toro could see it and say, “That’s it. That’s what I want. Build that.” This actually began as an illustration that Guillermo did in his sketchbook, a very meticulous and beautiful illustration that he came to us with.
But that’s the process: illustration and then maquette. Sometimes, though, we’ll do a 3D illustration in the computer before we go to the next stage, just to be able to look at something virtually, in three dimensions, and to examine it a little bit more before we invest the energy into creating a full-blown maquette.
The maquette, as a tool, can be very essential for us, because it allows us to work out any bugs that might be happening on a larger scale, design-wise. Practically speaking, it doesn’t give us a lot of information as to how the wings are going to work, or how it’s going to function; but it does tell us that a human being could actually be inside of it and that it could actually work as a full-scale creature. It’s essential for those reasons.
Simon, the mechanical bird from Your Highness, before paint has been applied, revealing the internal workings.
Because you can show a director a drawing, and it might look really terrific—but, when it comes to actually making it, in a practical application at scale, sometimes the drawing just doesn’t translate. Sometimes you need the maquette to help describe what the finished piece will look like.
Manaugh: You mentioned animatronics and puppeteering. We were just up at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena yesterday afternoon, talking to them about how they program certain amounts of autonomy into their instruments, especially if it’s something that they’re putting on Mars. It has to be able to act on its own, at times, because it doesn’t have enough time to wait for the command signal from us back on Earth. I’m curious, especially with something like the robot combat show, how much autonomy you can build into a piece. Can you create something that you just switch on and let go, so that it functions as a kind of autonomous or even artificially intelligent film prop?
Elizalde: It really depends on the application. For example, when we’re filming something, a lot of times there’s a spontaneity that’s required. Sometimes actors like to ad lib a little bit. If we need to react to something that an actor is saying via a puppet—an animatronic puppet—then that live performance really is required. But we always have the option of going to a programmable setup, one where we can have a specific set of parameters, performance-wise, to create a specific scene.
For live performances on a stage, we’d probably want to program that with the ability to switch over to manual, if required. But, if it’s scripted—if it’s a beat-by-beat performance—then we know that can be programmable. We can turn on the switch and let it go. In the middle of that, you can then stop it, and have a live show, with puppeteers in the background filling in the blanks of whatever that performance is, and then you can continue with the recorded or programmed performance.
It really goes back and forth, depending on what it is the people who are putting on the production need.
The mechanical skull under structure of the Ivan the Corpse from Hellboy.
Twilley: That’s an interesting point—the idea of how a live actor responds to your creatures. Have there been any surprises in how an actor has responded, or do they all tend to know what they’re getting into by the time you’re filming?
Elizalde: They do know what they’re getting into, but it’s always rewarding to have an actor go over to the thing that you built, and stare at it, and say, “Oh, my God! Look at that thing!” They can feed off of that. I think they are able to create a more layered performance, with a lot more depth in their reactions to something if it’s actually there—if it’s present, if it has life to it, and it’s tactile.
A lot of times people turn to digital solutions. That’s also good, if the application is correct. But, you know, a lot of directors that we talk to are of the mind that a practical effect is far better for exactly that reason—because the actor does have a co-actor to work with, to play off of, and to have feelings about.
That’s one of the things that keeps us going. And, the fact is, with this business, no matter what walks through that door we know that it’s going to be a completely different set of challenges from the last thing that we did.
Mechanical puppet of Drake from a Sprite commercial. Scott Millenbaugh and Jurgen Heimann of Spectral Motion are seen here making mechanical adjustments.
Manaugh: About six years ago, I interviewed a guy who did concept art for the Star Wars prequels, and he had a kind of pet obsession with building upside-down skyscrapers—that is, skyscrapers that grew downwards like stalactites. He kept trying to get them into a movie. He would build all of these amazing 3D models and show them to the director, and the director was always excited—but then he’d turn the model upside-down and say, “Let’s do it like this!” So all the upside-down skyscrapers would just be right-side up again. In any case, this artist was then working on the recent Star Trek reboot, and there’s a brief moment where you see upside-down skyscrapers on the planet Vulcan. It's only on screen for about a second and a half, but he finally did it—he got his upside-down skyscrapers into a film.
Elizalde: [laughs] But, ohhh! For half-a-second! [laughter]
Manaugh: Exactly. Anyway, in the context of what you do here at Spectral Motion, I’m curious if there is something like that, that you’ve been trying to get into a movie for the last few years but that just never quite makes it. A specific monster, or a new material, or even a particular way of moving, that keeps getting rejected.
Elizalde: That’s an interesting question. [pauses] You know, I’d have to say no. I’d say it seems like the more freely we think, the better the result is. So it’s quite the contrary: most of the stuff we suggest actually does make it into the film, because it’s something that someone else didn’t think about. Or perhaps we’ve added some movement to a character, or we’ve brought something that will elicit a more visceral reaction from the audience—bubbly skin, for instance, or cilia that wiggle around.
I don't think I’ve really encountered a situation where I thought something would look great, but, when I brought it to a director, they said, “Nah—I don’t think that’s going to go. Let's not try that.” They always seem to say, “Let’s try it! It sounds cool!”
Mike Elizalde applies some last-minute touch-ups to actor Ron Perlman on the set of Hellboy.
We really haven’t had a whole lot of frustration—maybe only when it turns into a very large committee making a decision on the film. Then, I suppose, a certain degree of frustration is more typical. But that happens in every industry, not just ours: the more people are involved in deciding something, the more difficult it is to get a clear image of what it is we’re supposed to do.
Manaugh: When we first spoke to set-up this interview, I mentioned that we’d be touring the landfill over at Puente Hills this morning, on our way here to meet you—it’s the biggest active landfill in the United States. What’s interesting is that it’s not only absolutely massive, it’s also semi-robotic, in the sense that the entire facility—the entire landscape—is a kind of mechanical device made from methane vents and sensors and geotextiles, and it grows everyday by what they call a “cell.” A “cell” is one square-acre, compacted twenty feet deep with trash. Everyday!
But I mention this because, during our visit there, I almost had the feeling of standing on top of a mountain-sized creature designed by Spectral Motion—a strange, half-living, half-mechanical monstrosity in the heart of the city, growing new “cells” every day of its existence. It’s like something out of Hellboy II. So I’m curious about the possibilities of a kind of landscape-scale creature—how big these things can get before you need to rely on CGI. Is it possible to go up to that scale, or what are the technical or budgetary limitations?
Elizalde: We can’t build mountains yet but, absolutely, we can go way up in scale! Many times, of course, we have to rely, at least to some degree, on digital effects—but that just makes our job easier, by extending what is possible, practically, and completing it cinematically, on screen, at a much larger scale.
For example, on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s new film that comes out this summer, we designed what are called Jaegers. They’re basically just giant robots. And we also designed the Kaiju, the monsters in the film. First, we created maquettes, just like the ones here, and we made several versions of each to reflect the final designs you’ll see in the film. Those were taken and re-created digitally so they could be realized at a much larger scale.
To that degree, we can create something enormous. There’s a maquette around here somewhere of a character we designed for the first Hellboy movie—actually, there are two of them. One of those characters is massive—about the size of a ten-story building—and the other one is much, much bigger. It’s the size of… I don't know, a small asteroid. There really is no limit to the scale, provided we can rely on a visual effects company to help us realize our ultimate goal.
But going the opposite direction, scale-wise, is also something that interests us. We can make something incredibly tiny, depending on what the film requires. There is no limit in one direction or the other as to what can be achieved, especially with the power of extension through digital effects.
Manaugh: Just to continue, briefly, with the Puente Hills reference, something that we’ve been interested in for the past few years is the design of geotextiles, where companies like TenCate in the Netherlands are producing what are, effectively, landscape-scale blankets made from high-quality mesh, used to stabilize levees or to add support to the sides of landfills. But some of these geotextiles are even now getting electromagnetic sensors embedded in them, and there’s even the possibility of a geotextile someday being given mechanical motion—so it’s just fascinating, I think, to imagine what you guys could do with a kind of monstrous or demonic geotextile, as if the surface of the earth could rise up as a monster in Hellboy III.
Elizalde: [laughs] Well, now that I know about it, I’ll start looking into it!
Twilley: Aside from scale, we’re also curious about the nature of monsters in general. This is a pretty huge question, but what is a monster? What makes something monstrous or grotesque? There seems to be such a fine line between something that is alien—and thus frightening—and something that is so alienating it’s basically unrecognizable, and thus not threatening at all.
Elizalde: Exactly. Right, right.
Twilley: So how do you find that sweet spot—and, also, how has that sweet spot changed over time, at least since you’ve been in the business? Are new things becoming monstrous?
Elizalde: Well, I think my definition of a monster is simply a distortion: something that maybe looks close to a human being, for example, but there’s something wrong. It can be something slight, something subtle—like an eye that’s just slightly out of place—that makes a monster. Even a little, disturbing thing like that can frighten you.
So it doesn’t take a lot to push things to the limit of what I would consider the grotesque or the monstrous. At that point, it runs the gamut from the most bizarre and unimaginable things that you might read in an H. P. Lovecraft story to something simple, like a tarantula with a human head. Now there’s something to make me scream! I think there’s a very broad range. But you’re right: it’s a huge question.
And sometimes the monstrous defies definition. I guess it’s more of a primal reaction—something you can’t quite put your finger on or describe, but something that makes you feel uneasy. It makes you feel uncomfortable or frightened. A distortion of what is natural, or what you perceive as natural, something outside what you think is the order of things—or outside what you think is acceptable within what we’ve come to recognize as natural things—then that’s a monster. That’s a monstrous thing.
Elizalde: My goodness, the stuff in that film is the stuff of nightmares. It really is brilliantly executed, and it’s a great inspiration to all of the people in our industry who love monsters, and to all the fans all over the world who love monstrous things.
Twilley: Have there been trends over time? In other words, do you find directors look for a particular kind of monster at a particular moment in time?
Elizalde: I do think there are trends—although I think it’s mainly that there’s a tendency here in Hollywood where somebody hears a rumor that someone down the street is building a film around this particular creature, so that guy’s now got to write a similar script to compete. But sometimes the trends are set by something groundbreaking, like The Thing. Once that movie was released, everybody paid attention and a whole new area of exploration became available to create amazing moments in cinema.
Those are the real trends, you know. It’s a symbiosis that happens between the artistic community and the technological community, and it’s how it keeps advancing. It’s how it keeps growing. And it keeps us excited about what we do. We feed off of each other.
Technician Claire Flewin uses her hand to demonstrate how yak hair looks stretched over a mold.
Manaugh: Speaking of that symbiosis, every once in a while, you’ll see articles in a magazine like New Scientist or you’ll read a press release coming out of a school like Harvard, saying that they’ve developed, for instance, little soft robots or other transformable, remote-control creatures for post-disaster reconnaissance—things like that. I mention this because I could imagine that you might have multiple reactions to something like that: one reaction might be excitement—excitement to discover a new material or a new technique that you could bring into a film someday—but the other reaction might be something almost more like, “Huh. We did that ten years ago.” I’m curious as to whether you feel, because of the nature of the movies that you work on, that the technical innovations you come up with don’t get the attention or professional recognition that they deserve.
Elizalde: I think your assessment is accurate on both counts. There are times when we see an innovation, or a scientific development, that we think could be beneficial to our industry; in fact, that happens all the time. There’s cross-pollination like that going on constantly, where we borrow from other industries. We borrow from the medical industry. We borrow from the aerospace industry. We borrow, really, from whatever scientific developments there are out there. We seek them out and we do employ some of those methods in our own routines and systems.
In fact, one of our main designers, and a very dear friend of mine whom I’ve worked side by side with for years now, is Mark Setrakian. When he’s not working here with us, he is a designer at one of the labs you just described.
Manaugh: That’s interesting—do the people who work for you tend to come from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like Mark, or are they more often from arts schools? What kinds of backgrounds do they tend to have?
Elizalde: Generally speaking, I think they’re people like myself who just have a love for monsters. That’s honestly where a lot of people in our industry come from. There are people who started their careers as dental technicians and people who started out as mold-makers in a foundry. In all of those cases, people from those sorts of technical fields gravitate toward this work because of, first of all, a love for monsters and creatures, and, secondly, a technical ability that isn’t necessarily described as an art form per se. Electronics people love to work for us. People who design algorithms love to work for us. Even people with a background in dentistry, like I say, love to work for us.
There’s really no limit to the fields that bring people to this industry—they come from everywhere. The common thread is that we all love movies and we all love creatures. We love making rubber monsters for a living.
To go back to your previous question, there are definitely times when I think we don’t get a lot of exposure for what we do, but there is also, at some level, a kind of “don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain” thing going on, where we don’t really want people to look backstage at what makes a movie work. We are creating a living creature for film, and that’s what we want to put across to the audience. In some ways, it’s actually better if there isn’t too much exposure as to how something was created; it’s like exposing a magic trick. Once you know the secret, it’s not that big a deal.
So we do live in a little bit of a shroud of secrecy—but that’s okay. After a film is released, it’s not unusual for more of what we did on that film to be exposed. Then, we do like to have our technicians, our artists, and what we’ve developed internally here to be recognized and shown to the public, just so that people can see how cool it all is.
I think, though, that my response to those kinds of news stories is really more of a happiness to see new technologies being developed elsewhere, and an eagerness to get my hands on it so I can see what we could do with it in a movie. And, of course, sometimes we develop our very own things here that maybe someone hadn’t thought of, and that could be of use in other fields, like robotics. And that’s kind of cool, too.
Mike Elizalde sculpting an old age Nosferatu as a personal project.
Manaugh: Finally, to bring things full circle, we’re just curious as to how Spectral Motion got started.
Elizalde: Well, I became involved in the effects industry back in 1987. It sort of just dawned on me one day that I wanted to do this for a living. I had been in the Navy for eight years when it really started getting to me—when I realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do with my life.
I decided that I’d come back to my home, which is Los Angeles, California, and look into becoming a creature effects guy. I was totally enamored of Frankenstein’s Monster when I was a kid. I grew up watching all the horror movies that I could see—a steady diet of Godzilla, Frankenstein, you name it. All the Universal monsters, and even more modern things like An American Werewolf in London. They just really fascinated me. That was a real catalyst for me to start exploring how to do this myself.
I also learned from books. I collected books and started using my friends as guinea pigs, creating very rudimentary makeup effects on them. And, eventually, I landed my first job in Hollywood.
Cut to fifteen years later, and I had my first experience on set with Guillermo del Toro. I was working with him on Blade II. I had done an animatronic device for the characters he was using in his film, and I was also on set puppeteering. We became very good friends. That’s when he offered me the script for Hellboy and that’s how we started Spectral Motion. I became independent. Prior to that I had worked for Rick Baker, and Stan Winston, and all the other big names in town. But this was our opportunity to make our own names—and here we are, today.
You know, this is one of those industries where you can come in with a desire and some ability, and people around you will instruct you and nurture you. That’s how it happened for me. I was taught by my peers. And it really is a great way to learn. There are schools where you can learn this stuff, as well, but my experience proved to me that the self-taught/mentored method is a very good way to go.
On a visit delayed by a long stretch of rain the day before, Venue drove east from downtown Los Angeles to visit the Puente Hills landfill—the nation's largest active municipal dump—near the city of Whittier.
An astonishing and monumental act of landform construction, Puente Hills is scheduled to close in October 2013, to be replaced by the much larger and geographically far more remote Mesquite Regional Landfill, two-hundred miles southeast in the Imperial Valley.
As we approached the site, the scale of the landfill became more clear, and the rhythm of its expansion was also evident in the traffic all around us, as dump trucks bumped and rumbled down the highway off-ramp, all on their way to add mass to the trash mountain looming on the right side of the freeway, blocking the sun.
At the entrance to the dump sits the unassuming two-story headquarters of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. Basil Hewitt, a public information officer, met us there to escort us up the mountain in his minivan.
Over the next few hours, Hewitt patiently answered our many questions about the site's history, its design, and its impending closure, while good-humoredly tolerating our recurring expressions of awe at just how unearthly a place Puente Hills can be.
The landfill opened in 1957, and was taken over by the Sanitation Districts in 1970. It sits on a 1,365-acre site, half of which is devoted to a buffer zone and wildlife preserve, leaving an area roughly the size of New York City's Central Park to receive one third of Los Angeles County's trash.
Over the past three decades, Hewitt told us, Puente Hills has received nearly 130 million tons of garbage. As Edward Hume writes in his excellent book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, this is a hard quantity to visualize. He offers the following analogies to convey its truly monumental scale:
Here's one way to picture it: If Puente Hills were an elephant burial ground, its tonnage would represent about 15 million deceased pachyderms—equivalent to every living elephant on earth, times twenty. If it were an automobile burial ground, it could hold every car produced in America for the past fifteen years.
What began as a small municipal dump, filling in a canyon on the edge of the San Gabriel Valley (acting literally as "landfill") has turned, over four decades, into a mountain-building exercise.
Hewitt told us that Puente Hills now rises to the height of a forty-story building, meaning, as Hume notes, that if the landfill was a high-rise, "it would be among the twenty tallest skyscrapers in Los Angeles, beating out the MGM Tower, Fox Plaza, and Los Angeles City Hall."
For quite some time, the garbage mountain of Puente Hills has been rising above its surrounding terrain, resembling nothing more than a huge and eerily modern version of an ancient tell—those giant mounds in the Middle Eastern deserts that mark where once-might cities rose and fell, and that now lie bured and broken beneath the sands.
We headed upward in the minivan, stopping to learn how the weigh station worked. Pulled over, we watched as trucks rolled up, paused on the gigantic scale (Puente Hills currently charges $38 a ton), then coughed and belched their way further up the hillside.
As he started the minivan back up, Hewitt made the fascinating observation that just a few years ago, this line of trucks would have been significantly longer, backed up sometimes all the way to freeway off-ramp. Toward the end of 2007, all of a sudden, Hewitt told us, "Puente Hills was like a ghost town. People who had worked here for forty years had never seen anything like it."
From a peak of 1,900 trucks per day in summer 2007, thirty or forty of which would be loaded with construction debris, Puente Hills' traffic decreased to only 400 trucks a day by the end of the year. "When it first happened, we didn’t know what the heck was going on," Hewitt explained. "We're not economists, but, in retrospect, we figured out something was up in December 2007, and all those banks didn't start to fail until fall 2008."
Had the Puente Hills landfill called it back in 2007, when the U.S. was on the verge of the Great Recession, perhaps we'd all be singing the praises of garbology as economic indicator.
From the weigh station onwards, the road bed sits on trash: "You can tell," Hewitt explained, "because trash is not homogenous, so you'll get differential settling, and the road will give you a little of a roller coaster at Disneyland-type ride."
If the bumpy ride was exciting, things at the active dumping site were more chaotic still. Because of the rain the day before, the working surface had become slippery and operations were confined to a "winter day" footprint—a smaller-than-usual area, given grip with a layer of crushed asphalt.
Hewitt, otherwise an extremely low-key and calm presence, became quite agitated as we tried to maneuver between dump trucks, compacting machines, and piles of shredded green waste. "This is not good!" was his repeated refrain, as heavy equipment backed up toward us without warning.
His alarm was justified: in Garbology, Hume notes that eight landfill workers nationwide died in 2010, and that the risk of "drop-off"—the chance that some of the twenty to thirty feet of uncompacted trash that builds up each day could start to slide, tipping them off the edge of the mountain altogether—is omnipresent.
On a normal day, Hewitt told us, the active dumping site at the top of Puente Hills is usually about an acre in area, and twenty feet deep. It's called a cell—not, as Edward Hume writes, "in the prison-block sense, but more akin to the tiny biological unit, many thousands of which are needed to create a single, whole organism." In other words, the garbage pile that the bulldozers and graders push, compact, and sculpt each day, is a landfill building block—a brick in the pyramid of trash that is Puente Hills.
The resulting "fill plan," designed by the Sanitation Districts's waste engineers and staked out afresh each day, informs the particular topography that the heavy machinery massaging the trash are trying to achieve. Down to its cell slopes and road patterns, the landfill is an entirely managed and manufactured terrain, a shape calculated in advance and then sculpted, incrementally, with every shift of every machine.
Hewitt's description of a mountain-building logic formed of "cells" could not help but remind us of historians Martin Bressani and Robert Jan van Pelt's discussion of 19th-century architect Eugène Viollet le Duc—designer of, among other things, the plinth or artificial hill upon which the Statue of Liberty now stands.
His sketches are often extraordinary, analyzing mountain peaks, slopes, and even glaciers for their formal, geometric qualities, looking for what he called "the great crystalline system" underlying it all.
Bressani and Jan van Pelt's description of Viollet Le Duc's opening chapter, which analyzes the geological processes behind the creation of Mont Blanc in architectural terms, is worth quoting at length:
An expanded mass of soft granite (protogine) below the earth’s thick surface erupted through the crystalline crust above, producing a domical rock formation sprouting out of a buttonhole-shape slit. As it slowly cooled and crystallized, this gigantic mass of granite progressively shrank and retreated. According to Viollet-le-Duc, the subtraction process followed a very precise rhombohedral prismatic pattern consistent throughout the whole. Mont Blanc thus acts as one huge crystal formation—every edge, every peak and aiguille follows a geodesic structure. The pattern creates a network of cells, a type of formation that Viollet-le-Duc found also at the micro level in glacial formation. This hexagonal configuration, based upon the equilateral triangle, proved the most fundamental and consistent principle of organization within Viollet-le-Duc’s late writings and architecture.
It would seem that a similarly analytic study of the mountain-building logic behind Puente Hills could be done here in greater Los Angeles, treating this astonishingly massive artificial landform as its Mont Blanc: held in place and given shape by methane pipes, geotextiles, concrete roads, and carefully choreographed "cells" of daily growth, and, in every sense, a work of architecture.
Puente Hills' daily construction cycle ends at 5 p.m.—or whenever the daily intake limit of 13,000 tons has been reached, which, before the recession, would happen as early as 1 p.m.—at which point, its machine operators use laser-guided markers to level the top of the mound, and then cover it with a twelve-inch layer of clean dirt and green waste.
That daily blanket, explains Hewitt, stops "vectors" from scavenging—primary rats, but also flies and coyotes—and is what makes Puente Hills a sanitary landfill.
In addition to the active cell, its traffic jam of heavy machinery and dump trucks, and a pile of green waste and clean dirt for the sanitary layer, Hewitt told us of the twin banes of landfill construction: siloxanes, a chemical found in many hair gels, mousses, and conditioners, which pits the equipment, and, surprisingly, tires:
We collect tires, and we have to shred them before we bury them, because we found out if we bury them without shredding them they kind of float up and burst through our cover and our liners.
We step out of the minivan for a moment, making Hewitt even more uneasy, and are immediately struck by the site's lack of stink. It smells like trash, of course, but it's really only as bad as the early-stage rot of a full domestic garbage bag. "In January," Hewitt tells us, "it actually smells really quite nice, because of all the mulched-up Christmas trees."
Nonetheless, Puente Hills is now a sufficiently large landform to generate its own microclimate and wind patterns—with the effect that several gigantic fans and berms dot the edges of the plateau, to keep wind from blowing over residential areas of Whittier.
Meanwhile, what look like large fishing rods stuck into the ground are actually bird deterrents. "In the old days," says Hewitt, "they would just shoot a sea gull in the morning—this was back in the 1960s or 70s. They’d wing a seagull, leave it out, and it would squawk and warn the other seagulls away. You don’t do that anymore."
Instead, the thin monofilament lines hung from the rods disrupt the birds' landing glide. They are often sufficient control on their own, but, Hewitt explained, "When the weather’s bad out at the ocean, that's when all the gulls come inland looking for food." Plan B starts with noisemakers, and ends with what someone flying a remote control airplane to buzz the birds, which Hewitt described as "the coolest job."
The rats are apparently even less difficult to control: Hewitt told us that the District's solid waste research group had "done a study, way back, which found that when they compact the trash they kill about fifty percent of the rats. Then, by covering it, the other fifty percent die from lack of oxygen. They can't survive the landfill process."
After one too many close calls for Hewitt's comfort, we retreated, retracing our steps before taking a side road round to an overlook in the buffer zone.
Standing next to a water trough (the park half of Puente Hills is criss-crossed with equestrian trails), we looked first west over Rose Hills Cemetery, the landfill's immediate neighbor, to the skyscrapers of downtown LA, and then back east to the brown plateau of the active dumping site, and the lush green of the terraced mountain, its contours defined by a spiderweb of white plastic tubes.
Decomposing garbage oozes toxic "leachate" and releases a steady flow of "landfill gas," which is a mix of methane, carbon dioxide, and other trace gases. As a result, both the interior and exterior of Puente Hills are filigreed with a network of plastic pipes—trash plumbing, to divert the leachate from groundwater and collect the landfill gas to prevent explosions and generate electricity.
In Garbology, Hume describes Puente Hill's pioneering role in transforming landfill gas to energy:
Back in the eighties, the Puente Hills engineers decided to break with landfill tradition and stop merely "flaring" the gas—the practice of burning it inside a giant torch to keep the raw methane from entering the atmosphere, where it becomes a potent greenhouse gas—and instead put it to use for power generation. They soon ran into the same problem others had encountered when trying to mine energy from landfill gas: Over time, as the trash in the landfill decomposed and settled under its own weight, the pipes would crack, crush, and break. The ingenious, low-tech solution—adopted first at Puente Hills, now employed all over the world—was to use plastic pipes of varying diameters and fit them together loosely, with plenty of overlap, like arms in a sleeve. As the trash mound settles, the pipe sections can move up and down at different rates and angles without damage, yet stay connected.
This gas will continue to flow for another fifteen to twenty years after the last piece of trash is accepted in October this year, which brought us to our final question for Hewitt: What happens when Puente Hills closes its doors for good?
"There's no closing party or celebration plan," Hewitt told us. "No, we’re just trying to save money. We’re going to be in rough waters, because when this landfill closes, we’re going to lose a huge revenue stream."
Nonetheless, work will continue at the site for the foreseeable future. In addition to the power plant, Puente Hills will become the intermodal transit site for the new "Waste-to-Rail" system that will funnel the County's trash out to the new Mesquite landfill — which has sufficient capacity to accept 20,000 tons of trash per day for one hundred years. Meanwhile, the closed landfill will still need to be monitored for leachate contamination or methane drift—a precaution that will have to continue for at least fifty years, according to Hewitt—and, of course, there is the landscaping work to transition this canyon turned garbage mountain into its next reincarnation, as a county park.
Hewitt grimly predicts that most people in Los Angeles County won't know Puente Hills landfill was ever there until it's gone—when the region's private landfill operators take advantage of the gap between its closure and Mesquite coming online to raise their rates.
And with that, we got back in the minivan, slowly winding our bumpy way down from the heights of terrestrial artificiality, back to the sculpted highways of greater Los Angeles, heading west into the city again.
On a tip from Nick Blomstrand, one of the students from Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, with whom Venue had the pleasure of traveling through Florida for a week while they did research for their various design projects, we stopped by the former hollow-earth cult settlement—and now state historic site—in the purpose-built town of Estero.
Estero was founded in 1894 by Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed, who, following a spiritual awakening, renamed himself Koresh. The National Park Service (PDF) describes Estero as "a 19th-century post-Christian communistic utopian community."
The meandering but precisely designed network of paths laid down to connect buildings on the coastal site were all paved with hundreds of thousands of seashells so that the walkways could reflect moonlight, a geometric garden illuminated by the sky.
One of the central beliefs of the Koreshan community was that human beings live on the convex inner surface of a vast hollow sphere, with the sun and stars all burning inside, at a central point around which the surface of the earth is wrapped.
To demonstrate the concept, Koresh produced several small models: globes within globes that he then took with him to various fairs and public lectures, seeking to find (or to convert) fellow planetary free-thinkers.
As it happens, hollow earth cults were not, in fact, entirely uncommon for the era—Jules Verne's classic science fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, for example, exhibits tinges of hollow earth thinking and even Edgar Allan Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" was influenced by ideas of a hollow earth with hidden entrances, amidst great and dangerous landscapes, at the earth's poles.
Indeed, as David Standish writes in his book Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface, it was Sir Edmund Halley, of Halley's Comet, who "gave us our first scientific theory of the hollow earth—in his formulation, consisting of independently turning concentric spheres down there, one side the other. Halley arrived at this notion, which he presented to the prestigious Royal Society of London, to account for observed variations in the earth's magnetic poles. His true imaginative leap, however, lay in the additional thought that these interior spheres were lit with some sort of glowing luminosity, and they they might well be able to support life. Generations of science fiction writers"—not to mention "communistic" utopians—"have been thankful to him for this ever since."
However, the Koreshan community at Estero sought to make good on the spiritual-scientific promise of these theories by taking them one step further into the realm of empirical testing and experimentation. That is, they attempted to prove, by way of homemade geodetic instrumentation and other landscape survey tools, that the earth is hollow and that, as they describe it, "we live inside."
Enter the so-called Rectilineator, a massive measuring rod—or, as science writer Frank Swain joked recently at a talk in Amsterdam, "a really big ruler"—that could be easily assembled and disassembled in large modular sections. Thus advancing down the smooth sloping beaches of south Florida, the Rectilineator would gradually do one of two things: either 1) it would depart from the earth's surface, thus proving that the earth, alas, was the way everyone else said it was and that we lived on the outside of a concave sphere, or 2) it would move closer and closer to the earth's surface, thus proving, on the contrary, that the Koreshans were correct and that the earth's surface was convex, slowly curving up into the sky, thus proving that we live inside a hollow earth.
The Rectilineator in action.
It should not come as a surprise to learn that the Koreshan beach survey of 1897 "proved" that the earth was hollow, thus vindicating Dr. Cyrus Teed in the eyes of the people who had followed him to what was, at the time, a subtropical backwater in a thinly populated state.
Things went downhill, so to speak, from there. After an ill-advised step into local politics, and a disastrous miscommunication with the local police force, Dr. Cyrus Teed was beaten to death, his theorized resurrection never came, and the cult slowly disbanded, leaving their settlement behind, intact, a town full of pseudo-scientific surveying tools abandoned to the swamp.
In 1976, what remained of the site was cleaned up and added to the National Register of Historic Places, becoming the Koreshan Unity Settlement Historic District. You can now visit the site—located alarmingly close to a freeway—and walk the shell-paved paths, wandering from cottage to cottage past a number of small historic displays, trying to tune out the sounds of passing cars.
Briefly, the aforementioned science writer Frank Swain, while discussing the Koreshan Unity settlement and the Rectilineator they used to measure the curving earth, provocatively compared their survey tools to NASA's so-called LISA satellite mission, which is, in Swain's words, also "a really big ruler" in space.
The LISA mission, more specifically, will use three laser-connected satellites placed five million kilometers apart in deep space to measure gravitational waves and the warp & weft of spacetime itself—a kind of Rectilineator amidst the stars, proving or disproving whatever theories we care to throw at it.
When European farmers arrived in North America, they claimed it with fences. Fences were the physical manifestation of a belief in private ownership and the proper use of land—enclosed, utilized, defended—that continues to shape the American way of life, its economic aspirations, and even its form of government.
Today, fences are the framework through the national landscape is seen, understood, and managed, forming a vast, distributed, and often unquestioned network of wire that somehow defines the "land of the free" while also restricting movement within it.
In the 1870s, the U.S. faced a fence crisis. As settlers ventured away from the coast and into the vast grasslands of the Great Plains, limited supplies of cheap wood meant that split-rail fencing cost more than the land it enclosed. The timely invention of barbed wire in 1874 allowed homesteaders to settle the prairie, transforming its grassland ecology as dramatically as the industrial quantities of corn and cattle being produced and harvested within its newly enclosed pastures redefined the American diet.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, Venue met with Dean M. Anderson, a USDA scientist whose research into virtual fencing promises equally radical transformation—this time by removing the mile upon mile of barbed wire stretched across the landscape. As seems to be the case in fencing, a relatively straightforward technological innovation—GPS-equipped free-range cows that can be nudged back within virtual bounds by ear-mounted stimulus-delivery devices—has implications that could profoundly reshape our relationships with domesticated animals, each other, and the landscape.
In fact, after our hour-long conversation, it became clear to Venue that Anderson, a quietly-spoken federal research scientist who admits to taping a paper list of telephone numbers on the back of his decidedly unsmart phone, keeps exciting if unlikely company with the vanguard of the New Aesthetic, writer and artist James Bridle's term for an emerging way of perceiving (and, in this case, apportioning) digital information under the influence of the various media technologies—satellite imagery, RFID tags, algorithmic glitches, and so on—through which we now filter the world.
The Google Maps rainbow plane, an iconic image of the New Aesthetic for the way in which it accidentally captures the hyperspectral oddness of new representational technologies and image-compression algorithms on a product intended for human eyes.
After all, Anderson's directional virtual fencing is nothing less than augmented reality for cattle, a bovine New Aesthetic: the creation of a new layer of perceptual information that can redirect the movement of livestock across remote landscapes in real-time response to lines humans can no longer see. If gathering cows on horseback gave rise to the cowboy narratives of the West, we might ask in this context, what new mythologies might Anderson's satellite-enabled, autonomous gather give rise to?
Our discussion ranged from robotic rats and sheep laterality to the advantages of GPS imprecision and the possibility of high-tech herds bred to suit the topography of particular property. The edited transcript appears below.
• • •
Nicola Twilley: I thought I'd start with a really basic question, which is why you would want to make a virtual fence rather than a physical one. After all, isn’t the role of fencing to make an intangible, human-determined boundary into a tangible one, with real, physical effects?
Dean M. Anderson: Let me put it this way, in really practical terms: When it comes to managing animals, every conventional fence that I have ever built has been in the wrong place the next year.
That said, I always kid people when I give a talk. I say, “Don't go out and sell your U.S. Steel stock—because we are still going to need conventional fencing along airport runways, interstates, railroad right-of-ways, and so on.” The reason why is because, when you talk about virtual fencing, you're talking about modifying animal behavior.
Then I always ask this question of the audience: “Is there anybody who will raise their hand, who is one hundred percent predictable, one hundred percent of the time?”
The thing about animal behavior is that it’s not one hundred percent predictable, one hundred percent of the time. We don’t know all of the integrated factors that go into making you turn left, when you leave the building, rather than right and so on. Once you realize that virtual fencing is capitalizing on modifying animal behavior, then you also realize that if there are any boundaries that, for safety or health reasons, absolutely cannot be breached, then virtual fencing is not the methodology of choice.
I always start with that disclaimer. Now, to get back to your question about why you’d want to make a virtual fence: On a worldwide basis, animal distribution remains a challenge, whether it’s elephants in Africa or Hereford cows in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
You will have seen this, although you may not have recognized exactly what you were looking at. For example, if you fly into Albuquerque or El Paso airports, you will come in quite low over rangeland. If you see a drinking water location, you will see that the area around that watering point looks as brown and devoid of vegetation as the top of this table, whereas, out at the far distance from the drinking water, there may be plants that have never seen a set of teeth, a jaw, or any utilization at all.
So you have the problem of non-uniform utilization of the landscape, with some places that are over utilized and other places that are underutilized. The over utilized locations with exposed soil are then vulnerable to erosion from wind and water, which then lead to all sorts of other challenges for those of us who want to be ecologically correct in our thinking and management actions.
Even as a college student, animal distribution was something that I was taught was challenging and that we didn't have an answer to. In fact, I recently wrote a review article that showed that, just in the last few years, we have used more than sixty-eight different strategies to try to affect distribution. These include putting a fence in, developing drinking water in a new location, putting supplemental feed in different locations, changing the times you put out feed, putting in artificial shade, so that animals would move to that location—there are a host of things that we have tried. And they all work under certain conditions. Some of them work even better when they’re used synergistically. There are a lot of combinations—whatever n factorial is for sixty-eight.
But one thing that all of them basically don’t allow is management in real time. This is a challenge. Think of this landscape—the Chihuahuan desert, which, by the way, is the largest desert in North America. If you’ve been here during our monsoon, when we (sometimes) receive our mean annual nine-inches plus of precipitation, you’ll see that where Nicola is sitting, she can be soaking wet, while Geoff and I, just a few feet away, stay bone dry. Precipitation patterns in this environment can be like a knife cut.
Students learning rangeland analysis at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center; photograph by J. Victor Espinoza for NMSU Agricultural Communications.
You can see that, with conventional fencing, you might have your cows way over on the western perimeter of your land, while the rainfall takes place along the other edge. In two weeks, where that rain has fallen, we are going to have a flush of annuals coming up, which would provide high-quality nutrition. But, if you have the animals clear over three pastures away, then you’ve got to monitor the rainfall-related growth, and you’ve got to get labor to help round those animals up and move them over to this new location.
You can see how, many times as a manager, you might actually know what to do to optimize your utilization, but economics and time prevent it from happening. Which means your cows are all in the wrong place. It’s a lose-lose, rather than a win-win.
One of Dean Anderson's colleagues, Derek Bailey, herds cattle the old-fashioned way on NMSU's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center. One aspect of Bailey's research is testing whether targeted grazing, made possible through Anderson's GPS collar technology, could reduce the incidence of catastrophic western wildfires. Photograph courtesy NMSU.
These annual plants will reach their peak of nutritional quality and decline without being utilized for feed. I’m not saying that seed production is not important, but basically, if part of this landscape’s call is to support animals, then you are not optimizing what you have available.
My concept of virtual fencing was basically to have that perimeter fence around your property be conventional, whether it’s barbed wire, stone, wood, or whatever. But, internally, you don't have fences. You basically program “electronic” polygons, if you will, based upon the current year’s pattern of rainfall, pattern of poisonous weed growth, pattern of endangered species growth, and whatever other variables will affect your current year’s management decisions. Then you can use the virtual polygon to either include or exclude animals from areas on the landscape that you want to manage with scalpel-like precision.
To go back to my first example, you could be driving your property in your air-conditioned truck and you notice a spot that received rain in the recent past and that has a flush of highly nutritious plants that would otherwise be lost. Well, you can get on your laptop, right then and there, and program the polygon that contains your cows to move spatially and temporally over the landscape to this “better location.” Instead of having to build a fence or take the time and manpower to gather your cows, you would simply move the virtual fence.
This video clip shows two cows (the red and green dots) in a virtual paddock that was programmed to move across the landscape at 1.1 m/hr, using Dean Anderson's directional virtual fencing technology.
It’s like those join-the-dots coloring books—you end up with a bunch of coordinates that you connect to build a fence. And you can move the polygon that the animals are in over in that far corner of the pasture. You simply migrate it over, amoeba-like, to fit in this new area.
You basically have real-time management, which is something that is not currently possible in livestock grazing, even with all of the technologies that we have. If you take that concept of being able to manage in real time and you tie it with those sixty-eight other things that have been found useful, you can start to see the benefit that is potentially possible.
Twilley: The other thing that I thought was curious, which I picked up on from your publications, is this idea that perhaps you might not be out on the land in your air-conditioned pickup, and instead you might actually be doing this through remote sensing. Is that possible?
Dean Anderson's NMSU colleague, remote sensing scientist Andrea Laliberte, accompanied by ARS technicians Amy Slaughter and Connie Maxwell, prepare to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from a catapult at the Jornada Experimental Range. Photograph USDA/ARS.
Anderson: Definitely. Currently we have a very active program here on the Jornada Experimental Range in landscape ecology using unmanned aerial vehicle reconnaissance. I see this research as fitting hand-in-glove with virtual fencing. However—and this is very important—all of these whiz-bang technologies are potentially great, but in the hands of somebody who is basically lazy, which is all human beings, or even in the hands of somebody who just does not understand the plant-animal interface, they could create huge problems.
If you don’t have people out on the landscape who know the difference between overstocking and under-stocking, then I will want to change my last name in the latter years of my life, because I don't want to be associated with the train wreck—I mean a major train wreck—that could happen through using this technology. If you can be sitting in your office in Washington D.C. and you program cows to move on your ranch in Montana, and you don't have anybody out on the ground in Montana monitoring what is taking place …. [shakes head] You could literally destroy rangeland.
We know that electronics are not infallible. We also know that satellite imagery needs to be backed up by somebody on the ground who can say, “Wow, we've got a problem here, because what the electronic data are saying does not match what I’m seeing.”
This is the thing that scares me the most about this methodology. If people decouple the best computer that we have at this point, which is our brain, with sufficient experience, from knowing how to optimize this wonderful tool, then we will have a potential for disaster that will be horrid.
NMSU and USDA ARS scientists prepare to launch their vegetation surveying UAV from a catapult. Photograph USDA/ARS.
Twilley: One of the things I was imagining as I looked at your work was that, as we become an increasingly urban society, maybe farmers could still manage rural land remotely, from their new homes in the city.
Anderson: They can, but only if they also have someone on the ground who has the knowledge and experience to ground-truth the data—to look at it and say, “The data saying that this number of cows should be in this polygon for this many days are accurate”—or not.
You need that flexibility, and you always need to ground-truth. The only way you can get optimum results, in my opinion, is to have someone who is trained in the basics of range science and animal science, to know when the numbers are good and when the numbers are lousy. Electronics simply provide numbers.
Now, you’re right, we are getting smarter at developing technology that can interpret those numbers. I work with colleagues in virtual fencing research who are basically trying to model what an animal does, so that they can actually predict where the animal is going to move before the animal actually moves. In my opinion if they ever figure that out, it’s going to be way past my lifetime.
Still, if you look at range science, it’s an art as well as science. I think it’s great that we have these technologies and I think we should use them. But we shouldn’t put our brain in a box on a table and say, “OK. We no longer need that.” Human judgment and expertise on the ground is still essential to making a methodology like this be a positive, rather than a negative, for landscape ecology.
Drawings from Anderson's patent #7753007 for an "Ear-a-round equipment platform for animals."
Manaugh: I'm curious about the bovine interface. How do you interface with the cow in order to stimulate the behavior that you want?
Anderson: I think that basically my whole career has been focused on trying to adopt innate animal behaviors to accomplish management goals in the most efficient and effective ways possible.
Here’s what I mean by that. I can guarantee that, if a sound that is unknown and unpleasant to the three of us happens over on that side of the room, we’re not going to go toward it. We’re going to get through that door on the other side as quickly as possible.
What I’m doing is taking something that’s innate across the animal world. If you stimulate an animal with something unknown, then, at least initially, it’s going to move away from it. If the event is also accompanied by an unpleasant ending experience and the sequence of events leading up to the unpleasant event are repeatable and predictable, after a few sequential experiences of these events, animals will try and avoid the ending event—if they’re given the opportunity. This is the principle that has allowed the USDA to receive a patent on this methodology.
The thing, first of all, about our technique is that it’s not a one size fits all. In other words, there are animals that you could basically look at cross-eyed and they’ll move, and then there are animals like me, where you’ve got to get a 2x6 and hit them up across the head to get their attention before anything happens.
When these kinds of systems have been built for dog training or dog containment in the past, they simply had a shock, or sometimes a sound first and then a shock. The stimulus wasn’t graded according to proximity or the animal’s personality.
Dean Anderson draws the route of a wandering cow approaching a virtual fence in order to show Venue how his DVF™ system works.
[stands up and draws on whiteboard] Let’s say that this is the polygon that we want the animal to stay in. If we are going to build a conventional fence, we would put a barbed wire fence or some enclosure around that polygon. In our system, we build a virtual belt, which in the diagrams is shaded from blue to red. The blue is a very innocuous sound, almost like a whisper. Moving closer to the edge of the polygon, into the red zone, I ramp that whisper up to the sound of a 747 at full throttle takeoff. I can have the sound all the way from very benign up to pretty irritating. At the top end, it’s as if a fire alarm went off in here—we’re going to get out, because it sounds terrible.
This video clip captures the first-time response of a cow instrumented with Dean Anderson's directional virtual fencing electronics when encountering a static virtual fence, established using GPS technology.
I’ve based the sounds and stimuli that I’ve used on what we know about cow hearing. Cows and humans are similar, but not identical. These cues were developed to fit the animal that we are trying to manage.
Now, if we go back to me as the example, I’m very stubborn. I need a little higher level of irritation to change my behavior. We chose to use electric stimulation.
I used myself as the test subject to develop the scale we’re using on this. My electronics guys were too smart. They wouldn't touch the electrodes. I’m just a dumb biologist, so…
Diagram showing how directional virtual fencing operates. The black-and-white dashed line (8) shows where a conventional fence would be placed. A magnetometer in the device worn on the cow’s head determines the animal’s angle of approach. A GPS system in the device detects when the animal wanders into the 200m-wide virtual boundary band. Algorithms then combine that data to determine which side of the animal's to cue, and at what intensity. From Dean M. Anderson's 2007 paper, "Virtual Fencing: Past, Present, and Future" (PDF).
If I’m the animal and I’m getting closer and closer to the edge of the polygon, then the electrodes that are in the device will send an electrical stimulation. In terms of what those stimulations felt like to me, the first level is about like hitting the crazy bone in your elbow. The next one is like scooting across this floor in your socks and touching a doorknob—that kind of static shock. The final one is like taking and stopping your gas-powered lawnmower by grabbing the spark plug barehanded.
What we did was cannibalize a Hot-Shot that some people buy and use to move animals down chutes. I touched the Hot-Shot output and I could still feel it in my fingertips the next morning, so we cut it right down for our version
As the cow moves toward the virtual fence perimeter, it goes from a very benign to a fairly irritating set of sensory cues, and if they’re all on at their highest intensity , it’s very irritating. It’s the 747s combined with the spark plug. Now, back from your eighth-grade geometry, you know that you have an acute angle and you have an obtuse angle. As the cow approaches a virtual fence boundary, we send the cues on the acute side, to direct her away from the boundary as quickly and with as little amount of irritation as possible. If we tried to move the cow by cuing the obtuse side, she would have had to move deeper into the irritation gradient before being able to exit it.
We don’t want to overstress the animal. So we end up, either in distance or time or both, having a point at which, if this animal decides it really wants what’s over here, it’s not going to be irritated to the point of going nuts. We have built-in, failsafe ways that, if the animal doesn’t respond appropriately, we are not going to do anything that would cause negative animal welfare issues.
Heart rate profile (beats per minute) of an 8-year-old free-ranging cross-bred beef cow before, during, and after an audio plus electric stimulation cue from a directional virtual fencing device. The cue was delivered at 0653 h. The second spike was not due to DVF cues; the cow was observed standing near drinking water during this time. From Dean M. Anderson's 2007 paper, "Virtual Fencing: Past, Present, and Future" (PDF).
The key is, if you can do the job with a tack hammer, don’t get a sledgehammer. This is part of animal welfare, which is absolutely the overarching umbrella under which directional virtual fencing was developed. There’s no need to stimulate an animal beyond what it needs. I can tell you that when I put heart rate monitors on cows wearing my DVF™ devices. I actually found more of a spike in their heart rates when a flock of birds flew over than when I applied the sound.
Now, there are going to be some animals that you either get your rifle and then put the product in your freezer, or you go put the animal back into a four-strand barbed wire fenced pasture. Not every animal on the face of the earth today would be controllable with virtual fencing. You could gradually increase the number of animals that do adapt well to being managed using virtual fencing in your herd through culling.
But the vast majority of animals will react to these irritations, at some level. They can choose at which point they react, all the way from the whisper to the lawnmower.
Diagram showing two cows responding differently to the virtual boundary: Cow 4132 (in green) penetrates the boundary zone more deeply, tolerating a greater degree of irritation before turning around. From Dean M. Anderson's 2007 paper, "Virtual Fencing: Past, Present, and Future" (PDF).
Here is the other thing: We all learn. Whatever we do to animals, we are teaching them something. It’s our choice as to what we want them to learn.
Of course, I don’t have data from a huge population that I can talk about. But, of the animals with whom I have worked—and the literature would support what I’m going to say—cows are, in fact smarter than human beings in a number of ways. If I give you the story of the first virtual fencing device that I built, I think you’ll see why I say that.
What our team did initially was cannibalize a kids’ remote control car to send a signal to the device worn by the animal. I had a Hereford/Angus cross cow, and she was a smart old girl. I started to cue her. I was close to her and she responded to the cues exactly the way I wanted her to. But she figured out, in less than five tries, that, if she kept twenty-five feet between me and her, I could press a button, and nothing would happen. I tried to follow her all over the field. She just kept that distance ahead of me for the rest of the trial—always more than twenty-five feet!
So that’s the reason why we are using GPS satellites to define the perimeter of the polygon. You can’t get away from that line.
A cow being fitted with an early prototype of Dean Anderson's Ear-A-Round DVF device. Photograph via USDA Jornada Experimental Range, AP.
What sets DVF™ apart from other virtual fencing approaches is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. The cues are ramped, and the irritating cues are bilaterally applied, so we can make it directional, to steer the animals—no pun intended—over the landscape.
What’s interesting is that if you have the capacity to build a polygon, you can encompass a soil type, a vegetation situation, a poisonous plant, or whatever, much better than you can if you have to build a conventional fence. In building conventional fences, you have to have stretch posts every time you change the fence’s direction. That increases both materials and labor costs in construction, which is why you see many more rectangular paddocks than multi-sided polygons. Right now, you can assume that, on flat country, about fifty percent of the cost in a conventional fence is labor, and the other fifty percent is material.
Twilley: Which raises another question: Is virtual fencing cost-effective?
Anderson: It depends. I’ll give you an example to show what I mean. The US Forest Service over in Globe, Arizona, is interested in possibly using virtual fencing. Some of the mining companies over there have leases that say that before they extract the ore, and even after, the surface may be leased to people with livestock.
That country over there is pretty much like a bunch of Ws put together. In March 2012, for two-and-a-half miles of four-strand barbed wire, using T posts, they were given a quote of $63,000.
That's why they called me. [laughs]
Now, if that was next to a road, even if it cost $163,000 for those two-and-a half miles of fence, it would be essential, in my opinion, that they not think about virtual fencing—not in this day and time.
In twenty years from now—somewhere in this century, at least—after the ethical and moral issues have been worked out, instead of stimulating animals with external audio sound or electrical stimulation, I think we will actually be stimulating internally at the neuronal level. At that point, virtual fencing may approach one hundred percent effective control.
The DARPA "Robo Rat," whose movements could be directly controlled by three electrodes inserted into its brain; photograph via.
It's been done with rodents. The idea was that these animals could be equipped with a camera or other sensors and sent into earthquake areas or fires or where there were environmental issues that humans really shouldn’t be exposed to. Of course, even if it can be done scientifically, there are still issues in terms of animal welfare. What if there is a radiation leak? Do you send rodents into it? You can see the moral and ethical issues that need to be worked out.
Twilley: If that ever becomes a real-world application, will you sell your shares in U.S. Steel?
Anderson: [laughs] I have a feeling that we never will have a landscape devoid of visible boundaries. If nothing else, I want a barbed wire fence between Ted Turner’s ranch and our experimental ranch up the road here. With a visible boundary, there’s no question—this side is mine and that side is yours.
Fencing photograph via InformedFarmers.com. Incidentally, Ted Turner's Vermejo ranch in New Mexico and southern Colorado is said to be the largest privately-owned, contiguous tract of land in the United States.
Twilley: Aha—so it’s the human animals that will still need a physical fence.
Anderson: I think so. Otherwise you’re looking at the landscape and there’s absolutely nothing out there—whether it be to define ownership or use or even health or safety hazards.
Manaugh: Do you think this kind of virtual fencing would have any impact on real estate practices? For example, I could imagine multiple ranchers marbling their usage of a larger, shared plot of land with this ability to track and contain their herds so precisely. Could virtual fencing thus change the way land is controlled, owned, or leased amongst different groups of people?
Anderson: If you were to go down here to the Boot Heel area of New Mexico you could find exactly that: individual ranchers are pooling areas to form a grass bank for their common use.
Anything that I can do in my profession to encourage flexibility, I figure I’m doing the correct thing. That’s where this all came from. It never made sense to me that we use static tools to manage dynamic resources. You learn from day one in all of your ecology classes and animal science classes that you are dealing with multiple dynamic systems that you are trying to optimize in relationship to each other. It was a mental disconnect for me, as an undergraduate as well as a graduate student, to understand how you could effectively manage dynamic resources with a static fence.
Now, there are some interesting additional things you learn with this system. For example, believe it or not, animals have laterality. You probably didn’t see the article that I published last year on sheep laterality. [laughter]
USDA ARS scientists testing cattle laterality in a T-Maze. Photograph by Scott Bauer for the USDA ARS.
Twilley and Manaugh: No.
Anderson: Our white-faced sheep, which have Rambouillet and Polypay genetics, were basically right-handed. You’ll want to take a look at the data, of course, but, basically, animals are no different than you and I. There are animals that have a preference to turn right and others that have a preference to turn left.
Now, I didn’t do this study to waste government money. Think about it in terms of what I have told you about applying the cues bilaterally. If I know that my tendency is right-handed, then in order to get me to go left, I may need a higher level of stimulation on my right side than I would if you were trying to get me to go right by applying a stimulus on my left side, because it’s against my natural instincts.
With the computer technology we have today, everything we do can be stored in memory, so you can learn about each animal, and modify your stimulus accordingly. There is no reason at all that we cannot design the algorithms and gather data that, over time, will make the whole process optimized for each animal, as well as for the herd and the landscape.
Cow equipped with a collar-mounted GPS device; photography by Dave Ganskoop for the USDA ARS.
Twilley: Going back to something you said earlier about animal memory—and this may be too speculative a question to answer—I’m curious as to how dynamic virtual fencing affects how cows perceive the landscape.
Anderson: The question would be whether, if the virtual fence is on or near a particular rock, or a telephone pole, or a stream, and they have had electrical stimulation there before, do they associate that rock or whatever with a limit boundary? In other words, do they correlate visual landmarks with the virtual fence? Based on some non-published data I have collected, the answer is yes.
In fact, to give some context, there have been studies published showing that for a number of days following removal of an electric fence, cattle would still not cross the line where it had been located.
So this could indeed be an issue with virtual fencing, but—and my research on this topic is still very preliminary—I have not seen a problem yet, and I don’t think I will. Part of the reason is that cows want to eat, so if the polygon that contains the animals is programmed to move toward good forage, the cows will follow. It’s almost like a moving feed bunk, if you will. I'm sure that, in time—I would almost bet money on this—that if you were using the virtual fence to move animals toward better forage, you could almost eliminate the virtual fence line behind the animals, especially if the drinking water was kept near the “moving feed bunk.”
The other thing is that the consumer-level GPS receivers I have used in my DVF™ devices do not have the capability to have the fixes corrected using DGPS, which means that the fix may actually vary from the “true” boundary by as much as the length of a three-quarter ton pick-up. That’s to my benefit, because there is never an exact line where that animal is sure to be cued and hence the animal cannot match a particular stone or other environmental object with the stimulation event even if the virtual boundary is held static. It’s always going to be just in the general area.
Manaugh: So imprecision is actually helpful to you.
Anderson: Yes, I believe so—although I don’t have enough data that I would want to stand on a podium and swear to that. But I think the variability in that GPS signal could be an advantage for virtual paddocks that spatially and temporally move over the landscape.
Twilley: We’ve talked about optimizing utilization and remote management, but are we missing some of the other ways that virtual fencing might transform the way we manage livestock or the land?
Anderson: Ideas that we know are good, but are simply too labor-intensive right now, will become reasonable. The big thing that has been in vogue for some time—and it still is, in certain places—is rotational stocking. The idea is that you take your land and divide it into many small paddocks and move animals through these paddocks, leaving the animals in any one paddock for only a few hours or days. It’s a great idea under certain situations, but think of the labor of building and maintaining all those fences, not to mention moving the animals in and out of different paddocks all the time.
With the virtual paddock you can just program the polygon to move spatially and temporally over the landscape. Even the shape of the virtual paddock can be dynamic in time and space as well. It can be slowed down where there’s abundant forage, and sped up where forage is limited so you have a completely dynamic, flexible system in which to manage free-ranging animals.
Here’s another thing. Like anybody who gathers free-ranging animals, I have a song I use. My song is pretty benign and can be sung among mixed audiences. [sings] “Come on sweetheart, let’s go. Come on. Come on. Come on, girls. Let’s go.”
In this video clip, a cow-calf pair are moved using only voice cues (Dean Anderson's gathering song) delivered from directional virtual fencing (DVF™) electronics carried by the cows on an ear-a-round (EAR™) system.
That’s the way I talk to them, if I want them to move. One day when I was out manually gathering my cows on an ATV I put a voice-activated recorder in my pocket and recorded my song. We later transferred the sounds of my manual gathering into the DVF™ device. Then when we wanted to gather the animals we wirelessly activated the DVF™ electronics and my “song”—“Come on, girls, let’s go”—began to play. Instead of a negative irritation, this was a positive cuing—and it worked.
The cows moved to the corral based on the cue, without me actually being present to manually gather them—it was an autonomous gather.
I think this type of thing also points to a paradigm shift in how we manage livestock. Sure, I can get my animals up in the middle of night to move them, but why do that? Why not try to manage on cow time, rather than our own egotistical needs—“At eight o’clock, I want these cows in so I can brand them,” or whatever. Why not mesh management routines with their innate behaviors instead? For example, my song could maybe be matched to correspond to a general time of day when the animals might start drifting in to drink water, anyway.
Twilley: I see—it’s a feedback loop where you’re cuing behavior with the GPS collars, but you’re also gathering data. You can see where they are already heading and change your management accordingly.
Anderson: Absolutely. You are matching needs and possibilities.
Manaugh: To make this work, does every animal have to be instrumented?
Anderson: This is a very valid question, but my answer varies. All the research needed to answer this question is not in, and the answers depend on the specific situation being addressed. I have a lot of people right now who are calling me and asking for a commercial device that they can put on their animals because they are losing them to theft. With the price of livestock where it is currently, cattle-rustling is not a thing of the nineteenth century. It is going on as we speak.
If that’s your challenge, then you’re going to need some kind of electronic gadgetry on every animal for absolute bookkeeping. For me, the challenge is how do you manage a large, extensive landscape in ways that we can’t do now, and I don’t think we necessarily need to instrument every animal for virtual fencing to be effective.
Instead, if you’ve got a hundred cows, you need to ask: which of those cows should you put instruments on? As a producer, you probably have a pretty good idea which animals should be instrumented and why: you would look for the leaders in the group.
Position of two cows grazing similar pastures in Montana, recorded every ten minutes over a two-week period. The difference in their grazing patterns reveal one cow to be a hill climber and one to be a bottom dweller. Image form a USDA Rangeland Management publication (PDF) co-authored by Derek Bailey, NMSU.
What’s interesting is that there are cows that prefer foraging up on top of hills. There are others that prefer being down in a riparian area. A colleague of mine at New Mexico State University, calls them bottom dwelling and hill climbing cows and this spatial foraging characteristic apparently has heritability. So it’s possible that you could select animals that fit your specific landscape. If, as I mentioned earlier, the ease with which an animal can be controlled by sensory cues also has heritability, it seems logical to assume that you could create hightech designer animals tailored to your piece of land.
Now, when you start adding all of these things together, using these electronic gadgetries and really leveraging innate behaviors, it points to a revolution in animal management—a revolution with really powerful potential to help us become much better stewards of the landscape.
This photograph shows a worm fence, an American invention. It was the most widely built fence type in the US through the 1870s, until Americans ran out of readily accessible forests, triggering a "fence crisis," in which the costs of fencing exceeded the value of the land it enclosed. The "crisis" was averted by the invention of mass-produced woven wire in the late 1800s. Photograph from the USDA History Collection, Special Collections, National Agricultural Library.
Twilley: None of this is commercially available yet, though, right?
Anderson: That’s true—you cannot go out today and buy a commercial DVF™ system, or for that matter any kind of virtual fence unit designed specifically for livestock, to the best of my knowledge. But there is a company that is interested in our patent and they are trying to get something off the ground. I’m trying to feed this company any information that I can, though I am not legally allowed to participate in the development of their product as a federal employee.
Manaugh: What are some of the obstacles to commercial availability?
Anderson: The largest immediate challenge I see is answering the question of how you power electronics on free-ranging animals for extended periods of time. We have tried solar and it has potential. I think one of the most exciting things, though, is kinetic energy. I understand that there are companies working on a technology to be used in cellphones that will charge the cell phone simply by the action of lifting it out of your purse or pocket, and the Army has got several things going on now with backpacks for soldiers that recharge electronic communication equipment as a result of a soldier’s walking movement.
I don’t think the economics warrant animal agriculture developing any of these power technologies independently, but I think we can capitalize on that being developed in other, more lucrative industries and then simply adapt it for our needs. When I developed the concept of DVF™ I designed it to be a plug-and-pray device. As soon as somebody developed a better component, I would throw my thing out and plug theirs in—and pray that it would improve performance. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t!
Anderson: That’s an interesting suggestion that I have not looked into. However, I have though a lot about capturing kinetic energy. If you watch a cow, their ears are always moving, and so are their tails. If we can capture any of that movement….
The other thing we need is demand from the market. In 2007, I was invited to the UK to discuss virtual fencing —the folks in London were more interested in virtual fencing than anybody else I have ever talked to in the world.
The reason was really interesting. England has a historic tradition of common land, which is basically open “green space” that surrounds the city and was originally used for grazing by people who had one or two sheep or cows. Nowadays, it’s mostly used by dog walkers, pony riders—for recreation, basically. The problem is that they need livestock back on these landscapes to actually utilize vegetation properly so certain herbaceous vegetation does not threaten some of the woody species. However, none of the present-day users want conventional fencing because of the gates that would have to be opened and shut to contain the animals. So they were interested in virtual fencing as a way to get the ecology back into line using domestic herbivores, in a landscape that needs to be shared with pony riders and dog walkers who don’t want to shut gates and might not do it reliably, anyway.
But it’s an interesting question. I’ve had some sleepless nights, up at two in the morning wondering, “Why is it not being embraced?” I think that a lot of it comes strictly down to economics.
I don’t know, at this point, what a setup would cost. But, in my opinion, there are ways we could implement this immediately and have it be very viable. You wouldn’t have every animal instrumented. You can have single-hop technology, so information uploads and downloads at certain points the animals come to with reliable periodicity—the drinking water or the mineral supplement, say. That’s not real-time, of course—but it’s near real-time. And it would be a quantum leap compared to how we currently manage livestock.
Barbed wire, patented by Illinois farmer Joseph Glidden in 1874, opened up the American prairie for large-scale farming. Photograph by Tiago Fioreze, Wikipedia.
Twilley: What do the farmers themselves think of this system?
Anderson: What I’ve heard from some ranchers is something along the lines of: “I've already got fences and they work fine. Why do I need this unproven new technology?”
On the other hand, dairy farmers who have automatic milking parlors, which allow animals to come in on their own volition to get milked, think virtual fencing would be very appropriate for their type of operation, for reasons of convenience rather than economics.
Robotic milking parlor; photograph via its manufacturer, DeLaval.
Now, let me tell you what I think might actually work. I think that environmentalists could actually be very beneficial in pushing this forward. Take a situation where you have an endangered bird species that uses the bank of a stream for nesting or reproduction. Under current conditions, the rancher can’t realistically afford to fence out a long corridor along a stream just for that two-week period. That’s a place where virtual fencing is a tool that would allow us to do the best ecological management in the most cost-effective way.
But the larger point is that we cannot afford to manage twenty-first century agriculture using grandpa’s tools, economically, sociologically, and biologically.
Some people have said, “Well, I think you are just ahead of your time with this stuff.” I’m not sure that’s true. In any case, in my personal opinion, if I’m not doing the research that looks twenty years out into future before it’s adopted, then I’m doing the wrong kind of research. In 2005, Gallagher, one of the world’s leading builders of electric fences, invited me to talk about virtual fencing. During that conversation, they told me that they believe that, by the middle of this century, virtual fencing will be the fencing of choice.
But here’s the thing: none of us have gone to the food counter and found it empty. When you have got a full stomach, the things that maybe should be looked at for that twenty-year gap are often not on the radar screen. As long as the barbed wire fences haven’t rusted out completely, the labor costs can be tolerated, and the environmental legislation hasn’t become mandatory, then why spend money? That’s human nature. You only do what you have to do and not much more.
The point is that it’s going to take a number of sociological and economic factors, in my opinion, for this methodology of animal control to be implemented by the market. But speaking technologically, we could go out with an acceptable product in eighteen months, I believe. It wouldn’t have multi-hop technology. It would equal the quality of the first automobile rather than being comparable to a Rolls Royce in terms of “extras”—that would have to await a later date in this century.
And here’s another idea: I think that there ought to be a tax on every virtual fencing device that is sold or every lease agreement that’s signed in the developed world. That tax would go to help developing countries manage their free-ranging livestock using this methodology because that’s where we need to be better stewards of the landscape and where we as a world would all benefit from transforming some of today’s manual labor into cognitive labor.
Herding cattle the old-fashioned way on the Jornada Experimental Range; photograph by Peggy Greb for USDA ARS.
Maybe with this technology, a third-world farmer could put a better thatched roof on his house or send his kids to school, because he doesn’t need their manual labor down on the farm. It’s fun for a while to be out on a horse watching the cows; what made the West and Hollywood famous were the cowboys singing to their cows. I love that; that’s why I’m in this profession. Still, I’m not a sociologist, but it seems as though you could take some of that labor that is currently used managing livestock in developing countries and all of the time it requires and you could transfer it into things that would enhance human well-being and education.
It’s in our own interest, too. If non-optimal livestock management is creating ecological sacrifice areas, where soil is lost when the rains come or the wind blows, that particulate matter doesn’t stop at national boundaries.
I always say that virtual fencing is going to be something that causes a paradigm shift in the way we think, rather than just being a new tool to keep doing things in the same old way. That’s the real opportunity.