2020-12-21 4 min read


Notes, 2020-12-21.

I’ve been counting silver linings as we approach the end of a chaotic year, and one that stands out is that I’ve had a lot more time to read this year. In no specific order, here are some 2020 standouts:

  • The Sympathizer and A Gentleman in Moscow: These books rhymed in a way. Both had delightful prose that felt spit-polished by skilled writers, and both explored troubling historical events from an individual view. While the former was richly cynical, the latter was encouragingly optimistic.
  • Ra and Fine Structure: Serialized hard science fiction published online by an anonymous writer, these books stand on their merit while also representing an exciting evolution of the media itself.
  • Worlds of Exile and Illusion and The Fifth Season (and the succeeding books in the series): It occurred to me this year that in three decades I had never read a female sci fi author (yikes). These series are now among my all-time favorites, and both are Science Fiction Triple Crown winners of the Hugo, Nebula, and Clark awards.
  • The Anatomy of Color and The Secret Lives of Color: If you’ve had the misfortune of being stuck in a party conversation with me, you’d know how obsessed I am with color and how it’s made. I can now recommend these books instead of soapboxing.

If you read any books this year that really left an impact, I’d love to know.

-Kane Hsieh

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~15% of opens) was a video of a stop sign that is projected onto a waterfall in a tunnel in Sydney. In the Members' Slack workspace this week, the tech stack that lets ghost kitchens scale quickly + lots of discussion around end-of-year tool self-gifts :)

Planning & Strategy.

  • I love Costco’s cheap hot dogs, and so does its co-founder: when President Craig Jelinek complained to co-founder Jim Sinegal about the pricing, Sinegal responded "If you raise [the price of] the effing hot dog, I will kill you.” The company claims the price is for tradition, loyalty, and goodwill—but I’m a bit more cynical. People buy more when shopping hungry, and how convenient for Costco that the concession stand is at the end of the shopping trip…
  • Single-Event Upsets are changes of state in an electronic device caused by an impact from a single ionizing particle. This is particularly concerning to spacecraft exposed to cosmic rays, which often require radiation-hardened CPUs. NASA publishes its radiation testing results of many consumer CPUs and GPUs.
  • The Oldsmobile Incas is the coolest car that was never built. It exudes retrofuturism, an unrealized endstate of a design system that never discovered digital controls.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • The Fictiv Open Source Motorcycle is a set of open source part designs that can be hand assembled with no welding into a street-legal motorcycle. You still have to provide some parts (engine, wheels, brakes, shocks, lights, dash) from OEMs, but cool nonetheless.
  • To retain the look of classic Star Wars, scenes in Disney’s The Mandalorian were shot with scale models and 80’s-vintage lenses. The video also clearly shows a build plate from a Formlabs SLA printer used to make the model of the spacecraft. The takeaway here for me is that rapid prototyping and videography equipment available to consumers now is really really good—and that’s awesome.
  • A “bio-hybrid odor localizing nano air vehicle,” or “Smellicopter,” is a quadcopter that uses a living moth antenna to avoid certain smells. The team from University of Washington says the hybrid biological/synthetic integrated chemical sensor reacted to odors more quickly than synthetic sensors, and the schematic for the “electroantennogram” is provided in the paper. This should come as no surprise to readers in signals processing: Analog is fast.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • McDonald’s ice cream machines being broken has become somewhat of a meme, and it turns out it’s because the machines require four hours of downtime service a day. McDonald’s is also so efficient that pickup orders aren’t prepared and you aren’t charged until you are geolocated within a minimum distance of the fulfilling McDonalds. Taken together, this allowed Rashiq Zahid to reverse-engineer McDonald’s ordering API and build a bot that ordered ice cream at $625/min to map broken machines. Surprisingly, it has not been nerfed by McDonalds!

Distribution & Logistics.

  • Scotland’s snow plow fleet has some incredible names. I’m partial to Sir Salter Scott. Icelandair also names its fleet, but woe unto any non-Icelandic speakers trying to say Herðubreið or Dyngjujökull over the radio.
  • In 1986, an airplane transporting a heart for a 5 month old transplant patient experienced engine failure-to-start on the runway. A North Dakota National Guard F-4 Phantom II was scrambled and flew the heart in its Weapon Systems Officer seat to Moffett Naval Air Station where the heart was handed off to a Stanford Medical team for a successful transplant.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • An excellent interactive explainer on the parameters of cameras and lenses, and how they affect images. I’ve always thought that ebooks, especially etextbooks, are not living up to the full potential of the digital medium: diagrams and charts should be dynamic and interactive!
  • Olympic archer Mackenzie Brown reviews archery mechanics in video games. Unsurprisingly, they are all underwhelming.


  • Kikki’s Workshop is a children’s website maintained by Komatsu Ltd. that explains the mechanics and history of heavy construction equipment through whimsical cartoons.
  • Physics of Beauty is a music album published as a digital art. Seeing stuff like this (and the camera explainer under Inspection, Testing & Analysis) makes me appreciate how far we are from fully exploring software as a multimedia experience.

A 4 mil (0.004”) drill bit. The Prepared’s style guide specifies SI, but sometimes SAE rears its ugly head.

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