Many of my friends here in San Francisco dream of starting a company, getting investor money, and then somehow making the world better. I'm thankful for VCs -- without them I wouldn't have my cushy internet company job and spare change to pursue my own ideas. But I don't have any personal goals that VC money would help with, whether it's an idea for a product that I want to test, or a facet of a global system that I want to understand.
VC investing aside, the goal of a project might be best served by not starting a company at all, and instead working with or within governments, unions, non-profits, journalism, or activist groups. And then even within these other types of organizations, while some initiatives work well, it's not uncommon for a project to have completely the opposite effect than what was intended.
A friend once examined all of the people who he knew had been happy over a long time scale, and what they had in common was optimism, perseverance, a focus on relationships, and an appetite for risk. I wondered about the last one, and he told me, "I think it’s probably hard to develop deep held confidence that you’ll be okay in all circumstances if your appetite for risk isn’t high enough." Perhaps a parallel conclusion can be made about the structure of the organization that you work inside: It definitely matters, but without an attitude of flexibility and humor it’ll all be for naught anyway.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~13% of opens) was on the "cross between the lasso of truth and a lightsaber" that is a steel cobble.
Planning & Strategy.
- How Asia Works is a fascinating book about how -- contrary to the World Bank's free market recommendations at the time -- protectionist government policies for agriculture output followed by manufacturing is the common theme between Asian countries that experienced rapid development and those that didn't. Bill Gates also has a good summary.
- There's been lots in the news about worker organizing from within tech companies, but other than the Google workers who cancelled a project to increase drone accuracy, there are few examples of protest leading to change. Tech worker Carmen Molinari explains: "The reliance on a small activist base rather than broad organizing has meant that the handful of prominent leaders either quit or get fired." Meanwhile, in the wake of the attack on the Capitol, the Alphabet Workers Union speak out against the role of YouTube in radicalization. AWU's growing membership is not yet 1% of Alphabet workers, but they do give 1% of their income in membership dues.
- Last year The Prepared’s reading group discussed The Box by Marc Levinson, which has a chapter on longshoremen labour relations in the 70s. Even today, dock workers on the West coast make 6 figure salaries, more than their counterparts on the East coast, whose forebears were not as successful in negotiations. Related, a good article on FiveThirtyEight about how Americans are nostalgic not just for manufacturing jobs, but union-protected ones.
Making & Manufacturing.
- A factory near where my parents live that used to make deodorants and other hygiene products has now switched to making surgical masks for a local hospital. Their employer recently got a 0.5M investment from the Ontario Together Fund to increase their mask production to 22M per month. The Canadian government has also been investing at the federal level to help manufacturers set up or retool production lines for PPE.
- A beautiful photo essay and history on the making of Hagoromo chalk, known to many mathematicians for its silky glide across the board.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- When forest land started to be assessed for its real estate potential in addition to its natural resource value, paper companies sold a lot of land to escape additional tax burden. The resulting decrease in forest management for undesirable vegetation and tree species has led to an increase in ticks and Lyme disease over the past 20 years.
- The fascinating story of how Dr. Steve Chu and his team advised BP in staunching the 40,000 barrels of oil spewing daily out of the Gulf of Mexico, which I was reminded of when reading Obama's A Promised Land.
- The Adobe Flash shutdown caused a 16 hour outage on a Chinese railroad. It was fixed with a pirated version.
- The Texan power grid is not connected to other states to avoid Federal Energy Regulatory Commission jurisdiction, including their winterization recommendations, making it hard for anyone to help with the energy crisis there.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Empire of Red Gold is a documentary about how Chinese-grown tomatoes are exported to Italy and Ghana to be reconstituted and packaged into cans of tomato sauce. For cost-conscious buyers, additives like soy fiber thickener compose up to 55% of the tomato sauce, without being on the label. Also, the lift of protectionist trade policies in Africa has allowed Chinese and Italian imports to put local tomato farmers out of business, some of whom then relocate to Italy to work as tomato pickers. Relatedly, import of Xinjiang tomato and cotton has been recently banned in the US due to concerns about forced labour.
- Matt Stoller on why states with pharmaceutical services dominated by Walgreens and CVS take much longer to administer vaccines: "The small pharmacies already had data on many patients, and they could schedule appointments, match doses, and handle paperwork quickly, all of which confounded the giants."
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- In many countries, leaded house paint is still surprisingly prevalent. The Lead Exposure Elimination Project advocates for better lead paint regulation starting in Malawi, where an estimated 3.4 million children have lead poisoning; see also this explainer on how child lead exposure results in serious and widespread adverse outcomes here in the USA.
- I knew that race could be a divisive topic in America, but I didn't know that Russia spent half of their 25 million dollar disinformation budget specifically on fake Black Lives Matters content - compared to just 11% on election-related content. More recently, much of the Russian media has been taking Covid-19 seriously within Russia, while running anti-vax and conspiracy reporting on their American-targeted media assets.
Thanks as always to The Prepared’s paid subscribers for supporting The Prepared. Thanks also to Jacob, Skyler, and Gabe for sharing links, and Jamie and Jon for their insight on long-term happiness. And shoutout to Dan and Tom of Studio Neat for mentoring me on product development this past half year. Their offer is still open for members of underrepresented groups.
p.s. - I'm developing breathable underwear for pregnant women. I'm due with my 2nd in June, and sweating like I'm going through puberty again. Commiseration welcome.
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.