2020-07-06 5 min read


Notes, 2020-07-06.

Back in April I mentioned that Uline CEO Liz Uilein, a top Trump donor, had pushed her employees to petition to recall Wisconsin’s governor over that state’s COVID shutdown. A couple days later Elon Musk tweeted “FREE AMERICA NOW,” and more recently he announced (mid morning on 06-19, after many workers had arrived at work) that Juneteenth would be an unpaid holiday at Tesla and SpaceX. The obvious reaction to this is that Elon Musk is an asshole, which (whatever you think of his life’s work) strikes me as kind of obvious. The more charitable read is that Elon Musk is an uncompromising asshole - someone who’s so committed to a single, humanity-scale goal (three goals? four?) that he’ll sacrifice everything else to achieve it.

The question to me is: In times when the world feels like it’s existential crises all the way down, is it morally justified for any individual to choose a single existential crisis to devote their lives to? And as a conscious consumer, how should we address companies that (for the sake of argument; the reality is of course *much* more complicated) rate 100% on the environment but significantly lower on labor relations, and social justice, and our collective responsibility to treat COVID shutdowns seriously?

Unrelated, this week marks two events for paid subscribers of The Prepared: The 2020-Q2 quarterly report, and our first ever book reading group meeting. I’m also considering a weekly project check-in group - a kind of show & tell that would hopefully keep me, for one, accountable to the odds & ends I’m always “working on” or “thinking about.” If these sound interesting to you, the link you want to click is 👉 here ;)

-Spencer Wright

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~28% of opens) was The USDA’s Handtools for Trail Work handbook.

Planning & Strategy.

  • An in-depth blog post on go-kart steering characteristics. Karts are required to have solid rear axles with no differential, and in order to corner without skidding the driver needs to partially unload the inboard rear wheel. Part of this is done through the steering geometry itself (the act of turning a kart’s front wheels results in one wheel lifting up while the other dips, meaning that the whole vehicle can see-saw off of the wheel in question), but part of it requires the kart’s chassis (which is strong, but not too stiff) to actually flex. Related, a smart and thoughtful essay on cultural approaches to the concept of mechanical stiffness. “What’s interesting to me is that the current, globalized engineering culture seems to have accepted stiffness as an advancement and flexibility as a more backwards approach. I disagree with that wholeheartedly.”
  • A good profile of Transsion, the Shenzhen-based cell phone company which focuses primarily on the African market. “Among the top 10 mobile phones sold in Africa in August 2019, the last date available, Transsion brands [including Tecno] held eight spots.” Related, a piece on how Tecno and other Android OEMs often give big app developers (like Google and Facebook) much better access to battery management features, background processing and system notifications - effectively relegating local app developers to the kids’ table and hurting consumers in the process.
  • Short profiles of fifteen deans of engineering at ABET-accredited Historically Black Colleges & Universities.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • A beautifully detailed project writeup of a baidarka (a variety of Aleutian skin on frame kayak) being built under the tutelage of George Dyson. Dyson (son of theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson) popularized the baidarka in the 1980s, adapting the traditional sealskin-over-driftwood design to one consisting of a sealed polyester skin on a frame made of bent aluminum tubing and waterjet cut aluminum plates, lashed together with what appears to be whipping cord. The resulting hull is lightweight, flexible, and has a super clean yet almost steampunk look - all of which I love. See also this page on potential explanations for the baidarka’s bifurcated bow, and note also the points about the (Russian, as opposed to indigenous) etymology of both baidarka and Aleutian.
  • A few readers wrote in regarding last week’s link to the USDA’s trail work hand tool handbook, mostly to say that my excitement for McLeod tools ignored other, more versatile options. Among the recommendations that were sent in:
  • Rogue Hoes are made from recycled agricultural disc blades and span trail, home garden, and commercial farming uses.
  • Trail Boss makes a modular system of interconnecting heads + handles, allowing for a variety of rakes, picks, shovels, and other implements of destruction to be packed into remote locations.
  • Krazy Beaver Tools makes shovels with rake-like serrated edges, and “seem to have 100% of the bolt-a-cool-shovel-on-your-overland-vehicle market in New Mexico.”
  • Some pretty cool wooden bowl coring tools, for use on a wood lathe.
  • A pretty cool short video of a robot elbow wrist; see also the fully assembled robot torso shooting hoops with a soccer ball.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • Carbonplan is “a public database of reports on carbon removal project proposals.” Somewhat discouragingly, their insights blog post (which is good) notes that “perhaps the most important finding is how often we found ourselves unable to confidently and independently validate metrics.”
  • A quick video product demo of Segnuts. Segnuts are segmented hex nuts which are held in a larger hexagonal sleeve; their design is intended to speed disassembly and make maintenance easier.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • An update on the global cocaine trade, which seems to be remarkably resilient to COVID lockdowns. During normal times, shipments from South America to the US often travel in small boats; the past few months have seen an apparent increase in foot traffic heading north. Meanwhile, much of the cocaine headed for Europe is smuggled into legitimate shipments of fresh produce, which have been undisrupted. The article cites interviews with mules and growers, but as a side note I find myself highly skeptical of any purported trends for which the only available data is a change in the rate at which police make prosecutions/seizes/arrests. For instance, recall that the NYPD gave more tickets to cyclists in 2019 than they did to truck drivers; I’ll suggest that this has more to do with a willingness to ignore trucks double-parking than really any other factor, and doesn't really indicate whether bike riders break the law more than truckers do.
  • A reminder that in addition to FedEx sponsoring the Washington D.C. NFL team, FedEx CEO Fred Smith is also a minority owner of the franchise. Smith has historically refused to comment on whether he thinks “Redskins” is an appropriate name, but has called FedEx’s sponsorship “a good one” for the “300,000 FedEx team members and FedEx shareholders” and once said that “we really don’t have any dog in this issue [of whether ‘Redskins’ is appropriate].”

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • In April, the FCC unanimously approved Ligado Networks (which bills itself as providing industrial IoT solutions and has pictures of factories, freight trains, and oil rigs on its website) the license to operate a terrestrial 5G network on the L-band, which is resistant to signal degradation due to atmospheric weather and is also home to GPS and other satellite-based location technologies. The fallout has been dramatic, with all manner of agencies and companies (including DOD, FedEx, and Delta) calling it “a grave error.” Ligado’s response to DOD’s criticism verges from calm to flabbergasted to belligerent, and includes a 2-panel comic that caricatures DOD’s understanding of the basic technology at play.
  • A GIF of Google’s automated book scanning machine at work.


Uranium disposal cells of America.

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