Maybe it was the global pandemic, or maybe it’s just getting older and feeling my own delicate corporeality: I’ve started to wonder more about the things around us that we currently normalize, but could have long term detrimental effects. We’re within living memory of arsenic in makeup, lead in paint, benzene in dry cleaning, asbestos in everything.
What are things now that our great grandchildren will look back on with horror? If I were a betting man, I would say we now significantly underestimate how noise pollution, artificial lighting spectrums, and indoor air quality affect us long term. In some ways it's a bit more insidious than heavy metals, if not as immediately dangerous—how do we even longitudinally measure and analyze psychological effects of our built environment?
Of course, one would drive themselves crazy trying to be on top of every risk factor. So while smarter people tackle those challenges, I plan to spend more time outside this year.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~13% of opens) was a blog post on Eddie Obeng's matrix of project types. Hot threads on The Prepared's Members' Slack include some rad animations of monopole gears, the pros and cons of using Pelican cases for personal luggage, and 🤩 a bunch of chatter in the SFBA channel planning the first ever Member-organized meetup.
Planning & Strategy.
- Infrapedia is an interactive map of the world’s Tier 1 internet network. In last week’s issue of The Prepared, Sean Kelly extolled the symbiotic relationship between technological innovation and sustaining engineering; the consumer internet experience has gotten so polished that it’s jarring to be reminded of the unsung and remote infrastructure supporting it.
- Duct tape is really important in space—among other things it was used by the crew of Apollo 13 to build their improvised carbon monoxide scrubber (called “gray tape” in the transcript). Amazingly, up until 2021 astronauts on the ISS just stuck it to the wall and had to remember where it was; SpaceX Crew-1 finally brought a duct tape dispenser which can be operated with one hand, allowing an astronaut to stabilize themselves with the other. Even more amazingly, the dispenser was designed by high school students as part of NASA HUNCH, a program that farms out tactical engineering problems to high schoolers.
- Starbucks orders have a distinct grammar, and it’s codified by the company to maximize order efficiency. I went looking for the Make it Your Drink guide published by the company, and instead found the complete Starbucks training manual which includes all the semiotics of cup markings as well.
Making & Manufacturing.
- Trappist abbeys are struggling to recruit monks to brew their famous beers. I got a chuckle out of this quote about running social media accounts for Trappist beers: “To be candid, the monastic lifestyle doesn’t attract a lot of people who are skilled at that.”
- Daisugi is a forestry technique that accelerates the growth of straight, knotless Kitayama cedar used in traditional Japanese architecture—and also results in some wild looking trees.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- I tried to think of a witty line for this one, but honestly it’s hard to beat the literal description: the USSR once put out an oil well fire by nuking it. It turns out this was just one of 115 nuclear bombs detonated by the USSR for peaceful purposes as a part of the incredibly uncreatively named Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy program.
- I love McFlurries and hate that the machines are often broken—so much so that I wrote about a website that tracks McDonalds ice cream machine uptime in the 2020-12-21 issue. One couple was so frustrated with McDonalds Soft Serve/Shake Combination Freezer Taylor Model C602 going down that they reverse engineered its internal data logs and created a product that gives franchisees more control of the machine—which led to a crackdown by McDonalds.
Distribution & Logistics.
- The SOFAR channel is a horizontal layer of the ocean that acts as a waveguide for sound, much like fiber optics are a waveguide for light. In a bit of inspired ingenuity, the Navy figured out that ships could signal their location without radio by detonating explosives in the SOFAR channel so that microphones on coastlines could triangulate them.
- Unsurprisingly, the French Space Agency has developed the tastiest food for astronauts (French aircraft carriers also bake fresh croissants and baguettes). Given the strict restrictions of space missions, there are a lot of funny hacks: alcohol is prohibited, so wine sauce has the ethanol removed in a evaporator and is checked with an MRI; refrigerated gouda cheese is certified as flight hardware; the first batch of cookies baked in a zero-gravity oven had to be sent back down to Earth for safety testing.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- I feel like I’ve been vindicated: Apple cables do fray more easily, for two reasons. First, Apple removed the molded ribbed strain reliefs usually on cables for aesthetic reasons, resulting in a stress riser. Second, Apple eliminated PVC from their products for environmental reasons, resulting in more rigid cables.
- An eye-opening explainer about the tragic Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse and the complexity of civil engineering. The bridge’s completed design was sound, but there was an intermediary step during construction which caused a collapse.
- Look, I’m obsessed with color—all my previous guest edits have included some links on color—so I’m making a dedicated color section. Since you’re almost certainly reading this on a monitor, it’s exciting to note that web browsers are starting to implement LCH color space, which parameterizes color as Luminance, Chroma, and Hue values (as opposed to RGB which parameterizes color as Red, Green, and Blue). Why does this matter? Digital color production is always a combination of “can we define the color” (color spaces) and “can we produce the color” (hardware). For a long time, RGB was close to what monitors could produce, but a tiny subset of what people can see. Modern monitors can produce almost 30% more colors than what RGB can define, so it’s time for software to start defining colors in large color spaces!
- Lea Verou, the author of the LCH link above, is married to the co-author of the PNG graphics format (what a colorful family!). But why do PNGs and JPGs both exist, and why can the former be transparent? It’s all answered in well-explained detail in these PNG and JPG explainers.