While I searched my Twitter history to synthesize the links for this newsletter I came across the adage "when presented with two contradictory signs, obey the one that’s more hastily drawn." For me, the hastily drawn sign has defined my past two years – from the unstyled Amazon.com banner informing me that Prime shipping guarantees were void, to the bodged-together restaurant delivery services (complete with slapdash websites and amateur menu photos), to the leaflets peppering the CVS entrance doors advertising vaccine and mask availability. Each hastily drawn sign represented a window into the global supply chain, an ecosystem that worked quietly outside of the public’s vision – until one day, it didn’t.
As I tried to describe this new awareness, I came across the term Fingerspitzengefuhl, a German word translated as "fingertips feeling" that is used to describe exceptional situational awareness. I first saw it in Cory Doctorow's For The Win, a prescient 2010 novel about digital currencies, globalization, and gig workers. Doctorow uses Fingerspitzengefuhl to describe the flow state of the book’s antagonists – administrators of massive multiplayer video games in tune with the flow of money across their virtual worlds. The protagonists are teenage video game gold farmers who conspire to disrupt the supply chain of virtual goods. The teens’ labor action is discovered by the ripples they leave in the game’s economic systems.
While the story bears similarities to the economic and social upheavals of the last two years, the real world has myriad more actors and complexities. Consider each link in this newsletter a hasty sign, a reflection of a hidden change somewhere else in the world.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~10% of opens) was an article about Norway's unpretentious sandwich culture. In the Members' Slack we maintain a healthy culture of tool recommendations - and this week Ezra took it to the next level, recording a video review of the Niimbot D110 label maker.
Planning & Strategy.
- My most relaxing Twitter follow this year is this compendium of advertisements for filing cabinets. Authored by the people behind The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History Of Information, it’s a playful look at the mundane boxes that held the world’s information infrastructure in the 20th century.
Making & Manufacturing.
- I’m a huge consumer of TikTok content and post my own absurdist videos doing terrible things to Airpods. Compared to YouTube, the TikTok video style is more gonzo first-person. The app’s easy video recording and publishing interface removes a lot of the friction of posting to YouTube, and I love seeing the perspective of creators who don’t own a dedicated camera or don’t have the time to edit a full-length video. Their fine-tuned recommendation algorithm presents fantastically niche videos. They have me pegged - my recent favorites are a consumer product packaging engineer and this behind-the-scenes view of a wireless earbud factory.
- Whenever I’m stuck on a spatial problem I wander back to thang010146’s YouTube channel. This retired engineer has been putting out a mechanism animation at a video a day for 11 years, for over 3600 videos total. Each animation is succinct, clearly labeled, and presented without ads or sponsorships. It’s an essential companion to 507 Mechanical Movements.
- The People’s Defense Force in Myanmar shared photos of combatants with 3D printed firearms, their first known use in a national conflict. While additively manufactured guns were widely discussed and controversial when the first design was released in 2013, they’ve moved from the garage to the battlefield with little public uproar. The design favored by the Myanmar forces is utilitarian and reminds me of the FP-45 Liberator, a single-shot pistol designed by the US military to be distributed to insurgents behind enemy lines in World War II.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- 20 years ago, Luminous Town Electric Company in Taiwan stole a recipe for capacitor electrolyte but accidentally left out an ingredient. This caused billions of capacitors in consumer electronics to fail prematurely, a death nicknamed “capacitor plague.” Afflicted systems would silently die, apparently without cause, after a couple of years. This spawned a cottage industry of shops dedicated to replacing capacitors. Some, like badcaps.net, are still around repairing legacy hardware. Growing up, the capacitor plague gave me a steady supply of broken computers to tear down and the lingering expectation that all of my electronics would soon meet the same fate. However, the biggest killer of electronic devices in the 2010s is gravity.
- I love this very detailed teardown of a surgical robot end effector. During manual surgery, most of the movement axes are supplied by the surgeon’s own arms while these robots use complicated cable-driven systems to transmit motion. It’s one of the reasons robot-assisted surgery is more expensive and not yet better than traditional methods. Robotic surgical tools are also difficult to sterilize, so maintenance techs discard and replace the tools after a handful of uses. It would be great to recycle all this medical waste, but it runs up against a fundamental problem of conservation: recyclable waste needs to be cleaned of contaminants, but hospital waste is thrown away because it is contaminated. On the plus side, you can pick up used robot surgical tools on eBay for a song if you’re not picky about cleanliness.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Shein, a vertically integrated garment manufacturing platform and shopping app has beaten the pants off fast fashion retailers in selling women’s clothing. Shein feeds viewing data from their iPhone app directly back to garment factory demand planners. Combined with TikTok and its algorithmic front page, Shein can respond to “feed-driven fashion” trends in 10 days. The company grew 250% in 2020, has a valuation of $47 billion, and occupies 28% of the fast fashion market, about the same as H&M and Zara combined. On a related note, it is no longer profitable to sell t-shirts with memes on them because they will be out of fashion by the time they are delivered.
- In late 2020, the shipping industry was overburdened by pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, causing widespread delays in Christmas e-commerce shopping. Despite warnings of a repeat performance, the United States Postal Service was able to significantly increase capacity in 2021 and turn itself around, boasting 97% on-time deliveries.
- The chip shortage has reached printer manufacturers - Canon is now shipping printer toner cartridges without its authentication chip and published instructions on its German support website on how to override Canon’s own counterfeit detection mechanism.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- In curling, one player pushes a large stone across an ice rink and aims at a target. Two other players follow the moving stone, sweeping the ice ahead of it with brooms to influence its path. In 2016, innovations in broom materials gave players so much control over the stone’s path that players felt the game was no longer challenging, dubbing the upset “broomgate.” In response, the World Curling Federation put out a testing report and limited athletes to one broom fabric, nylon oxford 420D, a regulation that’s still in place as of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
- The United States hosts a live hit tracker of all government websites. The post office “Track My Package” page is normally the top visited page, and when it’s unseated it means something is afoot, like tax refund season.
- Horse breeders record the date of birth for all thoroughbreds as January 1. Since horses have a natural breeding season, this makes it easy for statisticians to compare horse ages (and celebrate horse birthdays).
- Metal nails made up ~0.5% of America’s GDP in 1810, a comparable fraction to consumer PCs in today’s economy. Historically nails were made by hand and so valuable that old wooden structures were burned down to recover them.
p.s. - If you want to do ridiculous things with a bucket of Airpods let me know.
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.