About two and a half years ago I made a critical decision about this newsletter. For its first five years, I had written nearly every single issue - cramming it into my commute, and my weekends, and random moments while drinking coffee. But readers deserve more focus than that, and they deserve more than just what Spencer thinks, and so in mid 2019 I undertook a campaign to recruit other folks - writers, but more importantly people who were out there in the real world, doing stuff and thinking critically about it - to become regular contributors to The Prepared.
By almost any measure I can think of, the result has been a big win. It has given this newsletter a broader and deeper perspective, and at the same time it has let me think and work on longer time scales. So like any reasonable person, I began reading academic books on the history of the rubber supply chain.
Vulcanized rubber is a pretty special material. Along with steel, portland cement, and fossil fuels, its physical properties - and the ecological and geographical limitations of its primary source, hevea brasiliensis - really set the rails for 20th century infrastructure and technology. Rubber’s place in the labor history of Brazil, Malaysia, and the Congo is on par with cotton’s place in the labor history of the American south; it’s unspeakably horrible. Rubber made and utterly destroyed whole cultures, and it transformed transportation, communication, and industry in the 20th century.
And the thing is, the risks that Charles Goodyear took in his quest to discover the rubber vulcanization process were just crazy. The guy was in the poor house many times, in multiple countries, and was constantly abandoning his family outright in order to start another ill-fated rubber venture. He died poor, and outlived like three of his children, and had zero association whatsoever with the Goodyear Tire company of which we are all now familiar. All of which makes me feel like rubber’s dominance is the most improbable of possible outcomes.
I suppose it’s a truism, though: History fights against big R&D goals more than it fights for them.The tough part is figuring out whether history is fighting your goals - and deciding whether to stand your ground and fight back.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~12% of opens) was a video of kettlebell manufacturing that swayed Sean to buy the company's products. In the Members' Slack, this link kicked off a conversation about transparency in marketing and how to triangulate ethical decisions around consumption.
Planning & Strategy.
- Guan Yang on computer system instruction sets from IBM System/360, to PowerPC and x86, to ARM and beyond. “The new kid on the instruction set block is RISC-V. It comes from research at Berkeley dating back to the 1980s, and is completely open and royalty-free, which means there are also many open-source implementations. RISC-V has been slowly gaining traction, especially among Chinese vendors, in part because its openness makes it more resistant to US sanctions, which were preventing Huawei from making ARM chips.”
- A good podcast episode on the industrial sources of greenhouse gases, and how the steel, portland cement, and petrochemical industries might evolve/be regulated to mitigate them.
- A little microsite explaining what Uline is (a supplier of packaging products which differentiates itself mostly in its ubiquity and its halfway decent ecommerce capabilities) and alternative suppliers for the things they sell. I fundamentally and strongly disagree with the Uihleins’ politics, and have weaned my business from Uline completely.
- On LinkedIn, Maersk’s CEO says that construction of new fossil fuel powered ships should be banned starting in 2035. Maersk’s first container ship powered by a carbon neutral method (with a fossil fuel backup 😞) is due to be delivered in 2023, but that’s just a 172 meter feeder ship; their famed Triple E is 400 meters.
Making & Manufacturing.
- BubbleDeck International is a Danish company which holds a patent on a type of voided biaxial concrete slab - one in which basketball-sized hollow plastic balls are laid into the formwork, creating a grid of spherical voids in the middle of the slab’s thickness. BubbleDeck promotes long unsupported spans and fewer supporting columns with the same load capacity, but that’s just to get designers excited; the *real* interesting thing here is the huge reductions in concrete usage (~30% on the slab itself, plus svelter columns, footings, and walls due to the lighter slabs) and the corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These benefits don’t matter much to building developers/owners, as the increased labor cost to install BubbleDeck offsets any savings due to decreased concrete consumption. But as the cement industry produces ~8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, BubbleDeck makes a ton of sense on a societal level.
- The USGS’s US Wind Turbine Database, which includes 69,166 turbines with a total rated capacity of 124,550 MW. The mean rated capacity for turbines in the USWTDB is 1.67 MW, but like all machines, their actual output is significantly less than their rated capacities. In the power generation world, the stat to look at is the capacity factor, and the US EIA reports that the capacity factor of wind turbines is about 35% - meaning that the average US wind turbine generates about as much power as 460 average US homes consume. “To put it another way, the average wind turbine generates enough energy in 94 minutes to power an average U.S. home for one month.”
Tangentially related: A few weeks ago a big submarine-looking thing (whose corporate website is 🔥) was started up in the Fall of Warness, a strait in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. The thing is “the world’s most powerful tidal turbine,” with a nameplate capacity of 2 MW; it is anchored to the seabed and generates electricity as the strong tides flow past it. I love the idea of extracting energy from the gravitational pull of the moon and sun (via tides), and I’m curious what the maintenance plan for an articulated, power-generating, tethered boat is. As the hull, joints, and turbine blades are inevitably covered with sea life, how is performance affected? And what’s the mean time between failures that require the entire unit to be dry docked? These and other questions were sent to (but not answered by) the manufacturer, a startup which I’m sure has better things to worry about (e.g. climate change) than my FUD; anyway, congrats to them on a successful launch.
Even more tangentially related: Those of us who live near rivers often think of “mills” as things that are situated along rivers. But of course one can also use the tides to grind grain! There were apparently dozens of tidal mills in London in the 18th century; the first tidal mill I became aware of was the Carew Tidal Mill in Pembrokshire, Wales.
- A good blog post (with some nice pictures) on rammed earth wall construction, in which dirt is compacted within a temporary wooden form to create structures with low embodied energy.
- A video profile of Alaina Lewis, who runs Culver Props, a small company that makes reproduction small airplane propellers out of wood. See also this video explanation of their propeller tracing lathe, which uses a tracing head and gang-mounted circular saw blades to rough out the shape of a prop in under ten minutes.
- A short video of a Waldown sensitive tapping machine, which reverses automatically using what looks like friction on a set of opposing steel cones.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- One of many perversities of the US auto market: Insurers (rather than owners) decide when a vehicle is “totaled,” resulting in lots of reasonably functional cars being salvaged. Many of them end up packed into shipping containers and sent overseas, where they’re repaired in what is now a rather hot market for older used cars.
On the flipside, from this very newsletter back in 2017-12-11:
Haiti's import laws make it inexpensive to bring used vehicles into the country, and allow those vehicles to be stuffed (and loaded, with lax dimensional limits) with "personal effects". As a result, old and often nonfunctional cars and trucks are regularly used as shipping containers to send all manner of stuff there.
Distribution & Logistics.
- A little web app that lets you email messages in Morse code.
- SQUAWK is a term used to describe communication between airplanes and ground control, and arose out of the Identification, friend or foe system.
- Collins Aerospace (a subsidiary of Raytheon) bought FlightAware, a real-time aviation tracking platform.
- From Matthew Hockenberry, a good thread rounding up a bunch of things that are messed up in global supply chains rn. Related: Miriam Posner on the difference between supply chain management (which assumes that supply networks are ultimately unknowable) and logistics (which is what you do when you need to ship some of your widgets from point A to point B).
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- A set of scanning electron microscope images of disposable razor blades, scalpels, and utility blades, along with an analysis of both their keenness (edge width at 3 microns from the apex) and sharpness (edge width at the very apex). For reasons related to the Coastline paradox, I’m a bit skeptical of a dimension that’s taken “at the very apex...” but seeing edge geometry and refinement so clearly is pretty cool.
- A short news profile of Claus Mattheck, a professor of tree biomechanics and failure analysis whose personal site is a trip down German web 1.0 and whose 2015 book The Body Language of Trees “is a handshake of science with friends of trees.”
- A quick gif of a clever telescoping webcam zoom rig.
- I’m continuing to read about rubber & Brazilian history, and have been posting interesting finds on Instagram; I may also try to get The Prepared’s Reading Group to read Fordlandia. Big hat tip to Dan for getting me interested in the subject in the first place.
- 43 minutes of slow TV of me putting together a very custom kickstand for my cargo bike - my big project for the end of the summer.
- On play at The Prepared’s workshop in Brooklyn: A Spotify radio station based on Alice Coltrane’s cinematic 1972 track Going home; h/t to Michael for the idea.
- A desert rose is a crystal formation made of gypsum or baryte + embedded grains of sand. Individual rose rocks can be up to 10 cm in diameter and look kind of like roses. They develop naturally in dry, sandy areas, such as an evaporating pool of salty water.
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