I find solace, once in a while, in the insignificance of my own individuality. I am a unique snowflake, sure, but I’m also a vessel - for technical knowledge; for a set of cultural values; for good intentions, acted upon with varying degrees of wisdom and accuracy.
This perspective is particularly calming when I consider my station within the arc of western society. I live in a row home that is about a hundred and twenty years old; it was built speculatively, along with all the other buildings on our block, as upper-middle class New Yorkers moved out to the suburbs of Brooklyn when it was annexed in 1898. It’s likely that the house is more fashionable today than when it was built. I’m also aware that every one of my home improvement projects makes it accumulate technical debt, and I like to imagine that as it has leaned into history, the building has become increasingly stubborn towards the humans who’ve inhabited (and hacked on) it. As Stewart Brand writes in How Buildings Learn:
When we deal with buildings we deal with decisions taken long ago for remote reasons. We argue with anonymous predecessors and lose. The best we can hope for is compromise with the fait accompli of the building.
It was not my intention to become a steward for the values of wealthy turn-of-the-twentieth-century New Yorkers, but neither do I want to argue with them. One might think that my home should be a vessel for my cultural identity and technological prowess. But the building really is stubborn, and when we disagree I find it’s usually easier to concede the argument and become the vessel myself.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~11% of opens) was a Tweet encouraging you to think of household clutter as a lovingly rendered Miyazaki background. In the Members' Slack, we're hosting our second annual book exchange and there are some great titles popping up. While it’s fun to receive a book as a gift, the whole channel has become an excellent book recommendations list.
Planning & Strategy.
- If you’re still looking for something to make you excited about the James Webb Space Telescope’s successful launch, I suggest this video, which my four year old and I watched like ten times.
- The New York City Council voted to ban gas stoves and home heating systems for all buildings up to seven stories tall. I am very much pro this, and honestly can’t wait until I get to switch over to an induction burner myself - partly because the skill building will be fun, and partly because it simply makes no sense to release a bunch of PM2.5, NO2, and CO into my living space if a clean and (potentially) carbon-neutral alternative exists.
Related: A TikTok-famous chef (apparently 🤷) explains why restaurants - and home chefs - should choose induction over gas.
- Noah Smith on the Jamaican economy, and why Jamaican per-capita GDP has stagnated since 1990 while the Dominican Republic’s has roughly tripled. One theory relates to the aluminum supply chain: Jamaica is the 7th largest bauxite (aluminum ore) producer in the world, but does not have a smelting industry and therefore exports it all.
A slight side note: Smelting aluminum consumes vast amounts of electricity. As a result it tends to be concentrated near sources of cheap power - often hydroelectric. The Niagara falls region was one of the world’s first smelting hotspots, and Iceland has long had a thriving industry. On the other hand, 89% of Jamaica’s power production comes from imported fossil fuels.
Anyway, some economists claim that the result of Jamaica’s thriving bauxite export was that their per-capita GDP was too high for manufacturing to take hold: “Whereas Bangladeshi and Vietnamese workers would endure harsh conditions for a while but eventually get better lives as companies learned how to do more complex manufacturing, Jamaica’s high starting wages short-circuited that process. If industrialization is a process of learning to walk before you learn to run, then according to this theory, Jamaica was born with a fancy aluminum wheelchair.”
- Kevin Lynagh, drawing from Saul Griffith, on electrification, decarbonization, and the optimistic case for nuclear fission.
Related, if you missed it: Our interview with Tom Kocialski, who spent most of his career turning nuclear waste into borosilicate glass.
Making & Manufacturing.
- A good Twitter thread on how Amazon switched from Sun servers to HP/Linux in the year 2000, nine years (not six, as the thread suggests) after the Linux kernel was released. The punchline of the thread is that after the move to Linux, Bezos realized just how much excess compute capacity Amazon had during non-peak-holiday season - and just like that, AWS was born.
Related: A 2021-12-07 outage at AWS US-EAST-1 took down a service that Amazon Fulfillment Services uses to communicate with its subcontracted delivery fleet. It apparently affected both Flex, their Uber-like “delivery whenever you want to” gig workers, and DSPs, the Amazon-branded vans which are leased to smaller, regional delivery companies.
- From Joey Castillo, who was recently at his PCBA house inspecting first articles of his rad ARM-upgraded Casio F-91W watches, a reminder that (as yours truly has apparently urged upon him in the past) “you know a lot about the thing you’re making, but you don’t necessarily know a lot about making your thing.”
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- On Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, a convincing (and somewhat fawning) argument that the best laundry detergent for the planet is the stuff that’s made by Procter & Gamble’s enormous R&D teams. Washing your clothes with warm water uses a *ton* of energy, and while it does help dissolve the soap, it often harms the textiles you’re washing. Gladwell concludes, then, that the only rational choice is to find a soap that dissolves and works well in cold water - which P&G spends a lot of money developing.
Distribution & Logistics.
- A new video of SpinLaunch’s first suborbital test launch. As I wrote in 2018, SpinLaunch is trying to get satellites into space - not by burning kerosene in a rocket engine, but by hucking them into the air with a giant centrifuge-cum-shepherd’s-sling. From the always excellent Orbital Index newsletter:
The eventual launch vehicle will have a small first and second stage that will be able to propel a 200 kg payload to orbit after having cleared the majority of the atmosphere—it will coast to an altitude and velocity similar to the first stage separation of a Falcon 9. However, the forces on the orbital launch system and payload will be huge, with a sustained 10,000 g during spin up and the shock of the vehicle hitting the atmosphere at > Mach 6 (~2.2 km/s). The accelerator’s bearings also have to absorb the sudden release of an 11-ton vehicle (multiplied by 10,000 gs), meaning the system will likely have to simultaneously release a counterweight with ~1 ms precision—how they’ll manage an 11-ton counterweight moving at 2.2 km/s… will be interesting. SpinLaunch’s progress is impressive—their ¼ scale system is already the largest diameter vacuum chamber ever built—but, they still have a long road ahead of them. Lucky for them, their fundraising has also been impressive, with $110 M raised to date. While it may eventually work on Earth, systems like this could have significantly better applications on the Moon or Mars where the atmosphere is thin or non-existent and the gravity wells are much smaller.
Anyway, my updated take on SpinLaunch: It’s still crazy! But not as boneheaded as burning a bunch of fossil fuels every time we want to put a piece of hardware into orbit.
- BrownCafe is a webforum which boasts 22 years of “UPSers talking about UPS.” I found it via a thread on UPS Express boxes (which are supposedly reserved for UPS Express service, a rule which is apparently enforced “as much as the government enforces not cutting the tags off mattresses”). The level of discourse is about 10% helpful, 20% collegial, and 70% irreverent/juvenile; I enjoyed this thread on simple hacks for UPS drivers, and this one, started by an Amazon delivery partner driver, asking whether they should switch to UPS or ditch the industry and move into the construction trades.
- An in-depth 2019 article on the world of museum-quality art, and how it is packaged, handled, and transported in inter-institutional loans. Related: a short, sweet, and descriptive video of how art crates are designed and fabricated.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- Breaking down the 660,000 lines of code from the Apollo Guidance Computer - an International Standard Margaret Hamilton.
- A Twitter account that (usually) posts an x-ray image every day.
- A video of Kerry Scharfglass talking about factory management, test fixtures, and barcode scanners. “A bad barcode scanner will make you want to kill yourself with a barcode scanner.”
- In the US, large numbers are denoted almost exclusively in the short scale - a number naming system in which a million is 106 (prefix mega), a billion is 109 (giga), a trillion is 1012 (tera), etc. But today, continental Europe (and many of its former colonies) use the long scale, which has the same meaning for million but which then uses “billion” to describe 1012 (a million squared) and “trillion” for 1018 (a million cubed), etc. Numbering in India, I’m told, introduces even more complications.
- A clever website that lets you overlay different bike handlebars over each other to compare how they’ll affect hand positions.
- Last week, while building a cabinet for my family’s front hall, I finished listening to 1491, Charles C. Mann’s book on the social, technological, and ecological history of the Americas before Columbus. The book was enchanting - from the nuanced approaches to rainforest agriculture, to the totally grand civil infrastructure, to the apparent alchemy that went into the invention of maize.
Side note: I don’t usually enjoy applying paints and polyurethanes, but Osmo Polyx oil was fairly pleasant and the results look 👌