2020-11-09 5 min read


Notes, 2020-11-09.

What a weekend.

There are no bad vibes in this week’s newsletter. I’ve been fairly stressed out - I spent the latter part of last week meticulous (and somewhat mindlessly) reorganizing my tool chest - and I think it’s best in this moment to be as open minded and hopeful as I can muster.

Enjoy, and be nice to each other :)

-Spencer Wright

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~17% of opens) was How It's Actually made, a YouTube channel of re-dubbed spoofs of How It's Made videos.

Planning & Strategy.

  • From 2006 until a couple of months ago, a company called Makani worked to develop flying, tethered wind turbines (they call them “kites,” though without context that’s a bit like using the word “dinghy” to refer to a modern America’s Cup yacht). I finally watched their very well made documentary on YouTube this weekend, and while I knew it would be interesting (the Makani team are the real deal) I was not expecting to be quite so affected by their ambition and their track record of ultimately doing what they set out to. But the economics of wind generation shifted over the past few years, and even as they spun out of (Google) X this February, Makani was still years away from full commercial deployment. In addition to the documentary (which is entertaining enough to at least attempt to watch with a non-engineering friend or significant other), they open sourced all of their designs, simulators, and flight data - a pretty impressive repository of knowledge and experience.
  • My 2013 blog post on Richard Hamming’s You and Your Research, an absolutely classic lecture that could apply to basically any career path (and whose advice I often do a poor job of following). “If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.”
  • An honest and straightforward interview with SJ Jones (who works at Siemens Energy and has been active recently on The Prepared’s Slack instance) on what it’s like to a Black (and female, and gay) person working in additive manufacturing. Note: Xometry is a sponsor of this newsletter.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • One of my favorite niche engineering/manufacturing newsletters has a new home: Hardware Things, which is written by Chuma Asuzu and covers the African hardware community. See also Chuma’s 2018 feature on theprepared.org about the good engineering work being done in Africa, and the obstacles that entrepreneurs there face.
  • A very good post on applications for engineered lumber in the construction industry, a topic that I touched on in my rant on sustainability and shellac a couple of weeks ago. “By almost any measure, Wood appears to be far better for the environment than other construction materials...Other agricultural products have been cultivated and bred for desirable properties for thousands of years. Modern corn has over 16 times the yield per acre that teosinte, the plant that it evolved from, provides. A 2005 chicken is over 4 times the size of a 1957 chicken. But breeding trees for desirable traits is a relatively young practice. Tree improvement programs in the US are largely a post WWII phenomenon - prior to that we were still mostly clearcutting forests. And it’s even less time than it appears, because of the length of time it takes a tree to reach useful maturity. Unlike other agricultural products (which have a rotation time of once or twice a year), even a quickly growing tree can take 25-30 years to reach maturity...The upside of this is that we should expect that most possible tree improvement lies in front of us, despite the great gains that it has already made”

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • A fantastic 2014 piece by Peter Hessler on the informal system by which garbage is collected and processed in Egypt. “Many things in Egypt don’t work well. Traffic is bad, and trains get cancelled; during the summer, it’s not unusual to have five electricity blackouts in a single day...but there hasn’t been a single day when the trash wasn’t cleared outside my kitchen door. As a whole, Cairo’s waste-collection system is surprisingly functional, considering that it’s largely informal. In a sprawling, chaotic city of more than seventeen million, zabaleen like Sayyid have managed to develop one of the most efficient municipal recycling networks in the world.” Tangentially related, it came to my attention recently that not everyone knows about Dabbawalas, Mumbai’s highly efficient (and informal) lunch delivery network.

Distribution & Logistics.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.


A 2017 SIGGRAPH paper which uses water droplets as lenses through which to construct light field images.

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