2021-05-24 7 min read


Notes, 2021-05-24.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve believed that the marginal cost of buying a nice tool is usually lower than the marginal cost of the time I would spend wrangling an inferior one. In the global context I suppose this is classist of me, but I’ve mostly worked within industries where labor was by far the largest cost in a project, and the tool distributors I had access to as I was starting my career were mostly independent and needed high margins in order to afford the expensive commercial real estate market I lived in.

As a result, it wasn’t until I was older that I became aware of Harbor Freight and the world of cost-optimized power tools. I dabbled; I hated it. Harbor Freight represents an uncanny valley in my pantheon of utility: The stuff they sell is both specialized and generic, both highly engineered and haphazardly constructed. They’re mass market, but their products are often niche.

To me a tool mostly distinguishes itself from an idle artifact by doing something. But recursivity is a hell of a drug, and once I realized that even tools can have things done to them I desired the option to fix, and adapt, and even destroy them at will; the world became tools all the way down, as it were. And even setting aside their durability, perhaps the thing that most offends me about Harbor Freight’s tools is that they’re so resistant to being worked on themselves.

-Spencer Wright

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~16% of opens) was some totally rad wooden chairs designed by third graders. In the Members' Slack last week, hot takes on how tool libraries devalue repair work and musings on the societal costs/benefits to buying a tube of epoxy so that you can glue an old, cherished ceramic mug together for a few more years of use. Also, our biggest and perhaps most rousing reading group meeting yet! We'll start discussing our next book (TBD - join us this week to submit your votes!) on 2021-06-04.

Planning & Strategy.

  • The Department of Justice settled a suit with Aerojet Rocketdyne, resolving a case in which Aerojet had cited ITAR as a reason to prevent non-citizens from applying for jobs. This practice - appending an “ITAR Requirements” section to a job posting and barring “non-US persons” from applying - is something I’ve come across a lot while perusing job postings; indeed, some of the job posts listed in this newsletter have ostensibly been limited to citizens and green card holders. As Jonathan Goff commented on Twitter, small employers are put in a delicate position here: The State Department takes ITAR enforcement pretty seriously, and ITAR regulations can limit the scope of what non-permanent resident employees can do - something that’s hard for small companies in particular to stomach. But the DOJ’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section makes it clear that export restrictions are *not* a valid reason to violate the rights of immigrants, and I for one find it totally reasonable to take Aerojet Rocketdyne to task for having done so.
  • Ford unveiled their electric pickup last week, sparking much debate in the Teslaverse (see, for example, the replies to the NYTimes’ tweet on the subject) and winning plaudits from everyone from Reilly Brennan to Robinson Meyer. I’ve driven two F-Series trucks as daily work vehicles: A red ~1996 F-150 for about six months in 2004, and then later a white 2000 F-250 which got around 12 MPG and handled the snow around Donner Lake like a greased-up hippo. My experience with these vehicles was utilitarian. I had a sense of humor about their scale (the F-250 felt ridiculously tall, though it was almost identical in height to contemporary F-150s), and it always seemed idiotic to drive a pickup truck without towing a load. Then again I wasn’t paying for the fuel, and having *two* vehicles seemed silly, and it simply wouldn’t have been practical to haul the occasional load of floor joists in anything other than a full size pickup.

    Today, of course, my perspective is somewhat different. I know now that the vast majority of my household hauling can be - and indeed is more quickly - done by bicycle, and I’m also keenly aware that a vehicle’s bumper height has a *huge* impact on the severity of injuries when it eventually hits a pedestrian. So while Ford’s new pickup is less bad than the pickups it replaces, it’s still orthogonal to the future I really want my kids to grow up in. In other words I suppose it’s not the EV we need, but it is the EV we deserve.

    Tangentially related: A lightweight and heartwarming profile of Linda Zhang, the new pickup’s chief engineer.
  • Sandy Munro discusses the Tesla Cybertruck’s unibody design, with a particular focus on the low amount of tooling required to make it. Tesla’s existing customer base is not exactly blue collar, and the Cybertruck will almost definitely *not* be a high-volume vehicle. This makes it difficult to amortize the kind of complex tooling required to make conventional-looking trucks, but many of the details in Tesla’s angular design can be formed with cheap press brake tooling. Just like the F-117 (whose faceted shape was largely determined by limitations on 1970s analysis software), the Cybertruck leans into Tesla’s weaknesses and aims not for mass market adoption, but for profitability over small volumes.
  • A good explainer (with plenty of ridiculous photos) of the dazzle camouflage that automakers use on prototype vehicles.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • A few of my fave small scale engineering/design/making channels right now:
  • @capefalconbuilds, who inexplicably makes me want to build a skin-on-frame canoe
  • @dylaniwakuni, who is working on a pretty impressive restoration and relocation of a traditional post-and-beam Japanese home; his YouTube channel is also pretty awesome
  • Wintergatan, a YouTube channel of a guy making an intensely elaborate musical instrument that’s some sort of cross between a music box, a Babbage difference engine, and a pinball machine

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

Distribution & Logistics.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.


  • Lead oxide is bright yellow, and some turmeric manufacturers use it to enhance their product’s appearance 😱
  • Jevons Paradox occurs when some resource’s usage is made more efficient via technology or government intervention - and then public consumption habits adapt such that total resource usage remains constant. It is similar to risk compensation, in which people adjust their behavior relative to perceived risk such that the overall injury rate remains constant.
  • Some good physics quiz questions, many of which remain unanswered since the early 2000s. A curious one: “A drop of water landing on a 150C hot plate evaporates within a few seconds. If the temperature of the plate is raised to about 200C the drop survives for about a minute. At even higher temperatures the survival time decreases with increasing temperature. Provide a semi-quantitative explanation of this phenomenon.”

A good technical photo essay on the South Pole's fuel supply.

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