My home is overflowing with a Miyazaki-esque abundance of stuff. From the stacks of books to the antique wood furniture in various states of repair, my partner and I fill our apartment with objects acquired on our many trips to thrift stores and yard sales. So naturally, we took this tweet as a challenge - and stepped right up to it:
I don’t know why we stopped doing show and tell after kindergarten. All my stuff is so much cooler now.
It was delightful. We sat in a circle with friends and shared stories of cherished garments, a box of teeth, and pieces of petrified wood. One of our friends brought pocztówki dźwiękowe, Polish sound postcards, that were one of the only ways to buy music under communism. While most of our friends aren’t quite as obsessed with objects as I am, everyone had something to share that sparked real joy.
The latest season of the podcast Nice Try! explores all the ways we try to transform our homes into personal utopias, interrogating our relationships with devices like doorbells and slow cookers. In the end, it concludes with a love letter to a typewriter and a reminder that while there are problems with rampant consumerism, people form incredibly deep bonds with their things. So if I’m going to spend most of my time at home for the foreseeable future, I might as well commit to building a tiny utopia of bric-à-brac.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~8% of opens) was a satisfying video of a tool for removing excess paper from the edges of a die cut carton. In the Members' Slack, our discussion of Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn has been spiraling out in interesting directions, from LA's tax incentives encouraging rehabilitation and maintenance of historic buildings to the most architecturally unique McDonald's restaurants.
Planning & Strategy.
- Roadway expansion creates a planning paradox: Drivers want expanded highways if they are subsidized, but demand disappears when they must pay directly.
- This essay offers some interesting speculations on how heavy industry in space might be regulated, drawing a throughline from export processing zones here on Earth to Bezos’ dream of forklift operators on Mars. It includes a link to a map of global special economic zones, which is interesting to explore; I was unaware that the entire city of Montreal, where I’ve lived for a couple of years, is a free trade zone!
Making & Manufacturing.
- I am obsessed with the TikTok creator hmg....4, who creates hilarious, terrifying, and useless robots which ostensibly solve common problems like getting splashback while sitting on the toilet or breaking your wrist when dispensing hand sanitizer.
- The lumber industry uses the term mahogany rather liberally, more like a genericized trademark (think Kleenex) than a taxonomic identifier. Generally, any lumber with a straight grain and a reddish brown color will end up in the lumber yard marked as mahogany. These trees come from several hardwood genuses, many of which lack botanical commonality to the Swietenia genus. Other species sold as mahogany may be more difficult to work with and less rot resistant, but on the other hand many strains of true mahogany have been overforested - so choosing alternatives may be warranted.
- Using historical films and photos, urban history researcher Myles Zhang digitally recreated the 1915 Ford Model T assembly line. In a video animating the model, you fly over the various assembly stations; I particularly like the chute that drops assembled wheels down two stories. The 3D model he created can also be explored in VR.
- Assembling LED filament light bulbs is complex and mesmerizing, and involves an automated blowtorch line.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- I once worked at a company that owned dozens of funeral homes and cemeteries, and while there I realized that companies frequently upsell grieving families on lavish monuments and services. These monuments add up: Annually we bury 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, along with 104,272 tons of steel and 1.6 million hectares of forest. I appreciated this essay as a reminder that there are many options for what happens to your body after you die, and throughout history funerary practices have ranged from practical to opulent. Water cremation has emerged as an interesting post-living alternative that avoids the intensive energy use of cremation and the land use of burial.
- Anduril is open-source firmware for flashlights, allowing enthusiasts fine tuned controls for LED flashlights. The range of functions is pretty extensive (the shortest video tutorial I found runs over 15 minutes), with different combinations of clicks and presses activating strobe settings, brightness levels, and thermal throttling configuration. If you don’t want to deal with all the variables, muggle mode makes Anduril lights function like any old flashlight. My flashlight enthusiast friend recommends getting started with the super-popular Lumintop FW3 family of lights.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Some interesting speculations on how the rise of EVs marks the end of service parts availability for gas-powered vehicles. Also see this conversation about the Toyota part numbering system.
- Amtrak has an entire system for accommodating, routing, and billing private train car trips, where privately owned cars are tacked onto the end of commercial trains. The rates aren’t cheap, with each mile running $3.95. Some back of the napkin math put a trip from NYC to Boston at $746.55 and NYC to SF at $10,112. Additional costs include administrative fees, overnight parking, and the Amtrak-approved car itself (which runs between $150,000-$600,000). I will instead spend my time daydreaming about chartering one for a short trip and following along on Instagram.
- Another spot to place the blame in the global supply chain crisis: deregulation and the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 1998. Prior to OSRA, the U.S. regulated shipping as a public utility. In the 1970s deregulation in adjacent industries had driven down prices and policymakers wanted to extend the perceived market efficiencies to shipping. Prices fell at first, but later destructive competition emerged:
Ocean carriers immediately consolidated, and terminal operators consolidated in response. So did port traffic. In 1995, the top 10 U.S. container ports controlled 78% of traffic, by 2009 that was 85% of traffic. Smaller ports, especially those focused on exports, lost out. Remaining ports desperately spent money to dredge harbors and accommodate the mega-ships, for fear of being bypassed by the remaining giant carrier lines.
There were other serious consequences. The American shipping fleet disappeared, and U.S. shipping is now run by foreign ocean carriers (one of which is controlled by the Chinese government). The boom and bust cycle returned, with huge overcapacity leading to bankruptcies like that of Hanjin in 2016.
It seems unlikely that shipping would be reinstated as a public utility, but investing in mid-sized ships and ports could restore healthy competition and relieve the bottlenecks that benefit large carriers.
- To limit the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks last summer, factories across Vietnam adopted “three-on-site” policies, in which workers could either stay home without shifts or live, work, and eat on-site in makeshift dorms.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- WeatherFax is an affordable way for sailors to receive critical weather charts and a fascinating combination of technologies. These days most people receive WeatherFax on a laptop by plugging a shortwave radio receiver into their microphone jacks; you can also receive it on a Raspberry Pi.
- Airborne electromagnetic surveys, performed by helicopters carrying massive coils, map the conductivity of underground features to reveal the shape and size of aquifers and mineral deposits.
- This analysis of pocket size confirms what women everywhere know all too well: women’s pockets are ridiculously small. Less than half of the pants measured had pockets large enough to fit a smartphone or a small wallet.
- Be mindful when microwaving water, as there is a risk of superheating it to a temperature higher than boiling. Liquids can superheat when they are de-gassed, so a smooth clean vessel with water free of impurities may have no nucleation sites to set off boiling. While this is kind of neat, it poses a risk of burns as superheated water erupts when disturbed! It’s no doubt safer to watch the violent flash to steam on Mythbusters than try it at home.
- Europeans in the middle ages believed cotton grew as tiny lambs budding from the stalks of plants.
- The columnist for the Awesomely weird Alibaba electric vehicle of the week (mentioned in 2021-10-18) actually bought a teeny truck off Alibaba, and it’s kind of great.