In Doing Capitalism in The Innovation Economy, Bill Janeway makes an interesting argument in favor of financial bubbles and speculation - claiming they often create exceptionally useful infrastructure as a byproduct. In the 1800s, massive speculative investments in railroads were wiped out in the Panic of 1857 and the Panic of 1893, but when the dust settled the US had several thousand miles of additional track, enabling the creation of new businesses like Sears that might not have otherwise existed. By allowing for huge investments that are decoupled from any sort of business fundamentals, speculation can result in useful infrastructure that couldn’t be justified by expected returns alone.
I think about this whenever it seems like there’s a disproportionate amount of investment entering a sector. With concrete 3D printers, for instance, there are dozens of companies developing the technology and securing venture capital, though it’s still unclear how useful the technology is. Even if the critics are right, I wonder if I’m looking at the beginning of a kind of self-sustaining reaction of enthusiasm - the huge investment in concrete printer infrastructure (the technologies developed, the engineers and builders that understand how the system works, the jurisdictions that now have a path for approving its use) might make the technology succeed regardless of how many companies go bankrupt along the way. Perhaps in 100 years we’ll all be living in 3D printed houses, built using technology that only exists because a bunch of VCs were afraid of missing the boat.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~9% of opens) was the Panasonic RK-P400C Penwriter typewriter - it's a plotter and also a typewriter! In the Members' Slack, we've been having a meta-discussion about how to describe Membership in The Prepared itself. While Spencer called it "a personal & professional development group," Carl's characterization of the community as an "asshole-free Reddit for people who live in the physical world" is a lot more fun :) Join us!
Planning & Strategy.
- This JPL paper lays out a plan for managing the risk of the Yellowstone Supervolcano by drilling a series of holes around the perimeter to slowly leech away excess heat over thousands of years. As a bonus, the system could generate electric power at an estimated cost of ten cents per kilowatt-hour.
Related, a Marginal Revolution reader and trained geologist explains how geologists think. To a geologist, everything looks like a brief snapshot of a process that has been going on for millions of years, and will extend for millions more years into the future.
- Atomic Rockets is an exhaustive and wonderfully web 1.0 compendium of information designed to help hard sci-fi authors write more accurate stories. If you want to know what the performance characteristics of an antimatter engine would be, or how fast a ship will need to spin to provide artificial gravity, it’s a great resource.
Making & Manufacturing.
- If you’re interested in building your own 10,000 year clock, see the Long Now Foundation’s book of all the mechanical drawings, manufacturing specifications, and calculations used to produce their prototype.
- In 1998, the HIV antiretroviral Ritonavir temporarily disappeared from the market. The culprit was what Derek Lowe calls “perverse polymorphism,” a phenomenon where the crystalline form of a particular molecule gets “infected” by a more energetically favorable one, which in extreme cases can make the original form impossible to manufacture. It’s thought to be caused by microscopic seed crystals of the new form permeating the air of the manufacturing environment. The issue was serious enough that the company was forced to hold press conferences, and some of the transcripts are really something:
This is why all of us at Abbott have been working extremely hard throughout the summer [of 1998], often around the clock, and sometimes never going home at night. We have been here seven days a week and we will continue to do so. We have canceled vacations and asked our families for their understanding and support. This is not an issue that we take lightly…
There were several sub-teams of three to 600 people per team working full time in different areas. We also called on as many resources as we could…
We tried everything. We conducted countless experiments. We reconditioned our facilities. We rebuilt facilities and new lines. We looked at alternative sites. We visited a number of [other] organizations around the world…︁to see if we could start clean in a new environment free of Form II…
In a matter of weeks—maybe five or six weeks, every place the product was became contaminated with Form II crystals. The problem was eventually solved - after costing Abbott almost $250 million - by way of a soft gelatin capsule, which could effectively deliver the new form of the drug.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- The UK has, according to the BRE Trust, “the oldest housing stock in Europe, and likely the world.” To help the maintainers of the UK’s numerous old houses, the Building Conversation Bookshop offers a staggering array of books on the finer points of historic preservation. If you’re interested in how to maintain lime mortar, or want to make an old house energy efficient, this is the store for you.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Tabula Peutingeriana is a map of all Roman roads, dating from the 13th century, designed to be a useful navigational tool rather than a geographically accurate representation. In some ways it resembles a modern transit map. For other interesting Roman maps, check out the Forma Urbis Romae (the remains of a massive 18 m x 13 m stone map that depicted every architectural feature of ancient Rome), or this scalable PDF version of Robert Lanciani’s 1901 map of Rome - still considered the best one ever made.
- The Wuppertal Schwebebahn is the oldest elevated electric train in the world. Built in Wuppertal, Germany between 1897 and 1903, the train is still operational. This incredible video from 1902 gives a passenger-eye view of riding on it.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- This gif, from the Himiwari-8 weather satellite, shows the enormous scale of the recent Tonga eruption, as does this gif from the GOES-West satellite - watching the shockwave race across the globe is quite eerie. The GOES gif seems to be from this website, which lets you loop up to the last 40 hours of GOES imagery.
- Dan Luu looked at 40 years of computer latency to see how responsive modern computers are compared to older ones, and the results are ugly. Most modern computers are blown away by things like the Apple IIe (made in 1983), the TI-99 (made in 1981), and Commodore PET (made in 1977).
- Laundromats are cash businesses that keep few receipts, making it easy for owners to underreport their income to the IRS. To combat this, the IRS issued a guide to help auditors estimate the amount of revenue a laundromat generates by analyzing water usage (a quantity much more difficult to hide).
- Chicama, in Peru, is one of the longest waves in the world - in the right conditions, a surfer can ride it for nearly 2 kilometers. To protect this unique wave, a 2016 law prevents anything from being built within a kilometer of it that might affect its shape.