2021-05-31 8 min read


Notes, 2021-05-31.

In March 2020, I abdicated the lifestyle of an intellectually promiscuous on-demand fixer of hardware, design, and production projects. Heading back home to Colorado to assist my family’s small medical practice was quite a change; gone were spur-of-the-moment trips to Shenzhen and long days inside consisted mostly of helping one another (and our patients) stave off The Fear. C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate and all that.

In between maintaining a fax machine, sourcing PPE, washing surgical drapes, and building out telemedicine infrastructure, I found myself seriously wanting for new stimulus. Days were filled by going to the same tiny regional airport to work on my private pilot license (what better time to cultivate a hobby which necessitates sitting alone in a noisy box for hours on end), and iterating upon the process of making homemade tofu. And in the end, I was lucky enough to double down on relationships, make meaningful progress toward some neglected life goals, and not worry so much about manic devotion to the latest and greatest. Sometimes, my laptop wasn’t opened for days at a time. It was monotonous and deeply scary for the first few months, but then…..oddly refreshing.

That being said, writing this issue of the Prepared has been an opportunity to reopen dormant neural pathways and connect with friends for reasons other than to check in on one another’s health. It is heartening to feel seeds of ideas unrelated to solving a global emergency beginning to form once more, and I feel a glimmer of hope (perhaps even excitement) about the prospects of taking our collective and newfound perspective on what’s important and applying it back again into the beautiful chaos of making physical things and experiences that no amount of endless zoom calls and experimental Twitch streams can replicate.

-David Cranor

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~16% of opens) was an explainer on why prototype cars use dazzle camouflage. Popular threads on the Members' Slack last week included one on first-hand experience with Starlink, one on how uncannily good GPT-3 is, and like four separate threads on Spencer's not-so-hot take on how Harbor Freight tools are low quality.

This week The Prepared's (Members!) reading group is having its first discussion on Full Spectrum, Adam Rogers' new book about the science of color. We've got the author himself joining us for at least one of our discussions, too :)

Planning & Strategy.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • The famous SEG plaza building in the heart of Shenzhen’s electronics markets was affected by a mysterious shaking incident. There was no earthquake recorded in the area, and investigation is ongoing as to what could have caused it. The building does not feature a tuned mass damper system, and an initial report suggested that the swaying could have been caused by a fluid dynamics phenomenon called a Kármán vortex street forming as a result of a rare syzygy between wind, vibrations of the subway line below the SEG Plaza, and temperature differences inside and outside the building.
  • The face of CPR Annie, the popular mannequin used to teach mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in CPR classes around the world, is a copy of the death mask of a 16 year old Parisian suicide victim from the late 19th century.
  • Cybernetic Revolutionaries is a great book which details the rise and fall of Project Cybersyn, a project undertaken by Chile’s Allende government with the help of cyberneticist Stafford Beer to develop a computer system which would run the country’s economy. Although it was not completed before the coup which removed Allende from power, this book is a fascinating view into what could be the closest a government has gotten to implementing something like this. More here from 99 Percent Invisible, including photos of the sleek central operations room.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed pasta that could be produced and shipped flat, and then curls into shape upon cooking in boiling water. Utilizing a technique called “groove-based transient morphing,” the team stamped flat sheets of pasta with groove patterns of varying thickness. Because different thicknesses of pasta material hydrate and deform different amounts, the final shape of the pasta can be programmed by designing an appropriate stamping pattern. As noted in the original research paper, this technique could be used for a wide variety of hydrophilic gels as well, opening possibilities in many fields from shipping to medical devices.
  • An interesting interactive timeline from the International Packaged Ice Association detailing the history of ice harvesting and transportation. Before electric refrigeration and ice machines, the global ice trade was a dangerous and logistically difficult business to be in.
  • Vinyl junkies and practitioners of the philatelic arts alike will enjoy this article about the Kingdom of Bhutan’s 1972 issue of postage stamps that also doubled as miniature playable 33 1⁄3 rpm records.
  • Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority, has announced plans to widen a 30 kilometer stretch of the canal by 40 meters, increase its depth by an additional 2 meters, and lengthen the double lane stretch of the canal by an additional 10 kilometers - bringing that section of the canal to a total length of 82 kilometers. Unfortunately, this could mean the end of the unexpected yet delightful bumper crop of giant-ship-stuck-in-canal-and-efforts-to-remove-it memes that were gifted to the world in the wake (get it? wake? boats?) of the Ever Given disaster earlier this year. But probably a net win overall.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • The Flipper Zero is a device which combines a nifty suite of hardware hacking and pentesting tools with a digital pet. It seems a bit odd at first glance, but I actually kind of love how this product brings up the idea of computers (and technological devices in general) being objects that we could interact with in a more conversational manner than the current UI paradigms of menus and clicky graphical interfaces.
  • This dissertation is one of the most in-depth and quantitative pieces that I have read regarding the practice of online censorship in China. It’s pretty fascinating - the machine is extremely sophisticated, and it’s not nearly as simple as auto-deleting online posts about forbidden topics. According to the author’s analysis, the government actually selectively censors posts depending on content and general public sentiment around a given issue at a given time, and can even use these tools to modulate the apparent shape of public discourse as perceived by the participants themselves. There’s a fine balance to be struck between preventing “dangerous” ideas and organizations from gaining traction, while also not frustrating the public by being too obviously heavy-handed on the ban button.
  • As part of a documentary about our Neanderthal ancestors, the BBC took a casting of a fossilized vocal tract to several experts at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to explore what said ancestors might have sounded like. The results are… surprising.
  • A midair collision at Centennial airport in Denver (KAPA) between a Cirrus SR22 and a Swearingen SA226TC Metroliner miraculously resulted in zero deaths. The Metroliner was able to make a normal(ish) landing despite a chunk of its fuselage being torn out, and the Cirrus’ airframe parachute system (CAPS) deployed properly and floated it to the ground. The traffic radio recording of the incident is amazing - the Metroliner pilot wasn’t even aware of what had happened until he had gotten out of the plane. On the Cirrus side, the CAPS system is really quite something; it’s an explosively deployed parachute that usually destroys the airframe. Cirrus SR22’s catch some criticism in aviation circles due to the only officially certified spin recovery technique being to pull the chute and blow up the airplane, but as of 2021-05-13, CAPS had been activated 123 times, 104 of which saw successful parachute deployment. In those successful deployments, there were 212 survivors and 1 fatality. Subsequently, Cirrus now holds one of the best safety records in general aviation. Paralleledly, the poor student pilot in the Cessna doing his first solo while all of this was going on got a pretty unique souvenir of the day when it was time for the traditional first solo shirt cutting ceremony.
  • Here’s a video of environmental testing of large GE jet engines. Seeing them put water and synthetic hail through the running engine at respective rates of 4.5 tons and 1.5 tons per minute is pretty neat, but skip to around 1:00 for the part where they shoot a dead chicken out of a cannon and into the turbine blades.


In Medieval music, the Guidonian hand was a mnemonic device used to assist singers in learning to sight-sing.

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