2020-04-06 6 min read


Notes, 2020-04-06

It’s been almost ten years since I had a good clear way of describing what I do for a living. At times this is energizing; if my skillset lacks a clear and coherent boundary, then presumably I can protect some of the intellectual freedom that I value so much. But having ill-defined abilities sometimes makes it hard to match myself with others’ needs; it’s hard to fit into a larger system when one’s own interests can’t be pinned down.

On a different scale, much of what I see in the world today is a big and potentially intractable coordination problem. Institutional needs are evolving by the hour, and most of the people and companies who could *in theory* help with relief efforts have résumés that are at best tangentially related to filtration, isolation, and medical device compliance. It’s easy to draw dashed lines connecting one’s skillset with a potential need that the world *might* have, but it’s incredibly difficult to guarantee that your efforts result in positive outcomes.

I’m doing my own best to contribute in ways that at minimum do no harm; if you have thoughts about how The Prepared’s readership should tackle this problem, please send them.

Unrelated: The Prepared’s 2020-Q1 Insider Report went out to sponsors and paid subscribers last week; thanks to all of them for their continued support.

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~12% of opens) was The Kid Should See This, which Nora and I continue to enjoy. Our favorite video there from this past weekend: This cheery and playful video of trials rider Danny MacAskill biking around the rural landscape near Edinburgh.

Relief efforts, etc.

  • MasksOn, a project to engineer and distribute durable PPE, is taking both donations and engineering & logistics help here. If you're in NYC and able to help deliver PPE to the medical front line, get in touch with me directly here.
  • COVID Watch is looking for experienced (volunteer) app developers anywhere in the world.
  • PPEnow is raising money to purchase its second order of KN95 masks for NYC here.
  • A team at Imperial College London is looking for someone who can help produce requirements documents for the control software for a novel ventilator design. Get in touch here.
  • The MIT E-VENT project, an open source emergency ventilator, is accepting donations here.
  • OxVent, an open source ventilator project from the University of Oxford and King's College London, is accepting help here.
  • Fix The Mask provides an easy and nearly free way to improve the seal on pleated surgical masks.
  • If you're working on COVID-19 relief and could use a signal boost, get in touch with me directly.

Planning & Strategy.

  • A good, short, and somewhat sobering blog post on high end hand tool manufacturers in the Great Depression. “One of the hallmarks of economic downturns is new projects get cancelled. The cabinet makers and other skilled tradespeople sitting around wondering about their future don't buy tools. But as companies finish up, lots and lots of tools enter the used markets. This of course kills whatever's left of the new tool market. The 1930's was consequently a time of crisis for all the makers.”
  • Two interesting and well argued takedowns: One on “no-code” tools, and one on “generative” design. Each of these subjects has its issues, and much of the criticism levied resonates with me. I’ll also note that the most gratifying and valuable experiences I’ve had on no-code tools (Zapier in particular) are the ones in which I’ve stepped up and written some actual code.
  • A startup called FairShake has automated and aggregated the arbitration process, resulting in thousands of claims against companies like DoorDash, AT&T and Comcast. Companies like these typically require customers and platform members to sign arbitration agreements, but when claims are submitted in large numbers the system turns against them, resulting in huge legal fees and, in the words of a federal judge ruling against DoorDash in February, “a lot of poetic justice.”

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • The inventor of the electrostatic charging technology behind N95 mask filters on the performance, protection, and sterilization of N95 and medical masks. Masks heat treated at 70°C are sterilized effectively with a very small degradation of filtration efficiency. Steam and boiling water are also effective, but alcohol is not. Related, multiple US hospitals (including New York’s Stony Brook University and Boston’s Partners Healthcare) will soon sterilize masks using big machines that treat them with vaporized hydrogen peroxide.
  • Hong Kong’s MTR is apparently using trash can sized mobile robots to spray vaporized hydrogen peroxide to disinfect train cars.
  • Recently the NYC Department of Sanitation announced changes to the way they process curbside trash pickup, including the provision that business improvement districts can install permanent, sealed trash containers in the street so that sidewalks remain clean and clear. Related, note that NYC regulations require both commercial and residential property owners to clean the sidewalks and curbs in front of their buildings. This requirement has always been problematic (pedestrians suffer when businesses fail to live up to the law, while cars are more or less guaranteed clear passage since DSNY manages street plowing/cleaning), but (anecdotally) it has completely fallen apart under the current shutdown, with commercial districts littered with discarded PPE and other street trash.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • Physical media sales account for up to 50% of some indie labels’ revenues, and play a big role in the way the music industry markets itself. But the manufacturing and shipping of vinyl records passes through a few very tight bottlenecks, and two of them have failed in major ways recently. First, a bunch of the big labels moved to a single distributor who clearly wasn’t up to the task of handling 80% of the physical media market. Then in February a fire hit Apollo Masters, which is one of only two companies in the world that makes lacquer masters for the vinyl industry.
  • An old (2013) announcement of the opening of NYC’s UV water disinfection plant, which was “expected to treat between 800 and 1400 million gallons of water from the Kensico Reservoir.” NYC’s public drinking water is unfiltered; the UV system’s $1.6 B pricetag compares to projections of “tens of billions of dollars or more” for filtration facilities.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.


  • I’m reading The Dutch House on audiobook; it’s read by Tom Hanks and has been a welcome distraction.
  • Apropos of nothing other than a need for levity, I highly recommend Stop Podcasting Yourself, an irreverent and always delightful comedy podcast that I’ve been listening to for more than a decade.

Photos of stacks of shipping containers.

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