2020-10-26 5 min read


Notes, 2020-10-26.

I don’t think about it that often, but my job is pretty weird. Every week I send an email to almost 10,000 people, endorsing a bunch of engineering-ish stuff I found on the internet. I enjoy it; I like being excited about things, and when I get excited about something I like telling other people about it.

My request to you this week is to pass it on - to share this newsletter with somebody. The Prepared only grows when you, dear reader, share it - and the truth is that growth is one of the most direct ways to improve its quality, consistency, and energy.

So if there’s something about this newsletter that you love, tell someone! If my weekly experience is any guide, it may even be fun :)

-Spencer Wright

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~16% of opens) was a convincing (and perhaps unnecessary?) argument against underground houses.

Planning & Strategy.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • The 50 is one of the largest forging presses in the world. Commissioned in 1950 by the US Air Force, it (and its sister, the 35) was designed to manufacture lightweight and strong airframe components like the ones found in German fighters during World War II. In 2008 cracks were found in the 50 and Alcoa spent $100 M over four years to repair it. “The decision to rebuild must have been a relief to customers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Airbus, and others, who have the assurance that the rebuilt 50 will be available for decades to come. ‘Not only can it do things that no other forge can do, but if you’re making a decision for an aircraft program, you’re pretty sure that this is going to be running for another 30, 40, or 50 years.’”
  • Sony’s PS5 mechanical design chief tears down a Playstation 5, explaining each subassembly in pretty good detail.

Distribution & Logistics.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

A rather provocative (to me, at least) 2018 blog post by Jason Crawford on the materials and products that were eventually replaced by coal- and petroleum-derived plastics. This came across my feed because of its section on shellac, which notes that a pound of shellac takes 15,000 lac beetles six months to produce - a shocking number which, according to Wikipedia, may actually be an underestimate. Jason uses this and related factoids about ivory, blubber, and firewood - and the assertion that “plant and animal materials had become unsustainable” in the 19th century - to argue *against* the viability of biofuels and corn-based plastics today.

While I agree with him that plastics are indeed incredible materials, I find his reasoning haphazard and his focus on technological solutionism to be misguided. (He also uses scarequotes in the phrase the “unsustainability” of oil, which I strongly disapprove of). Crawford says that today, “sustainability” is “not the sustaining of growth, but simply the sustaining of a given industrial process indefinitely.” I find this claim bizarre: If climate change puts anything at stake, it’s humanity’s ability to grow. He also implies that plant- and animal-based materials are necessarily constrained by material shortages, admitting that perhaps humanity can get through the 21st century if we develop “biomaterials that can be manufactured at industrial scale” while remaining “skeptical” that we’ll be able to “take humanity to the next level” if we rely on “plastic made from corn.” Of course this ignores the fact that corn is indeed manufactured at an industrial scale, but aside from that Crawford fails to recognize that things like clean air and water are resources too - and limited ones at that. Synthetic fertilizer, Bakelite, and even coal do have their advantages over guano, shellac, and firewood. But those advantages are not immutable, and it behooves all of us to periodically reevaluate their costs and benefits - and judge the result not on whether it resembles a regression to an earlier era, but on whether it will improve our collective well being into the future.

Some related links:


  • How Mars’ moon, Phobos, got its characteristic grooves.
  • Crown shyness is a phenomenon in which some tree species’ crowns never fully touch each other, resulting in the appearance of channels between adjacent trees in the canopy.
  • In addition to The Box (which we’re reading in the paid subscriber reading group) I’m also reading The Emperor of All Maladies, a “biography of cancer” which is both interesting and rather intense. A factoid I was not previously aware of: Between 1917 and 1938, the US Radium Corporation manufactured a radioactive glowing paint called Undark. Their safety protocols were horrendous (and, I mean, the product was highly radioactive), causing many of the women who worked on the product to fall ill and die.

The NYTimes visits an absentee ballot printing factory.

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