One tool which has been on my mind recently is time. Humans have had sundials since about 1500 BC, giving us the concept of local time and letting us coordinate locally. In the mid-1700s we figured out how to apply our knowledge of time towards geolocation: With an accurate timepiece it’s possible to calculate your longitude, and the accuracy of John Harrison’s pocket watch, first tested in 1761, enabled a ship’s captain to geolocate to within a few nautical miles. In 1840, a train company in England invented the first time zone, letting them synchronize their operations – coordinating activity across space. Then in the late 20th century, cesium clocks brought us GPS, and with it much of modern digital life.
Time is remarkably effective at evoking emotional reactions in people too. For instance, it turns out that people like to end their workdays before the sun sets, and when they do end their workdays, they tend to get upset if their clocks show them small numbers. As the designers and maintainers of those clocks, there are any number of things we might do to ensure that this doesn’t happen. We might adopt 24 hour time, which puts sunset on the winter solstice in NYC at around 16:48 this year – a pretty big number. Or we might use something akin to Swatch Internet Time, which has no time zones and renders that same NYC sunset time as @950. Or we could simply change our mental model of what “6pm” means, and encourage employers and schools to shift the numbers on their open signs accordingly.
Or, I suppose, we could just add an hour to the numbers on our clocks. Because as much as it pains me to write this, most people don’t care whether the sun is at its highest point in the sky at noon – what they want is to feel a particular way when their clocks tell them it’s 6pm. So just as Spinal Tap can make all of their volume knobs go to eleven, I guess we can just as well turn our clocks ahead an hour and keep ‘em there. After all, time is our tool; we may as well use it in a way that suits our needs.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~9% of opens) was a video of a *highly* automated pie production line. In the Members' Reading Group, we're starting Space Forces, Fred Scharmen's critical history of life in outer space. Join us :)
Planning & Strategy.
- Rhetoric aside, I use ISO 8601 for both dates and times, and I’m totally fine with the idea of ending my workday sometime before 16:48. For more on John Harrison’s pocket watch, I strongly recommend Dava Sobel’s Longitude. And for more on atomic clocks and their role in GPS, I recommend Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists.
Regarding whether year-round daylight “saving” time is better than switching the clocks twice a year: Well yeah, switching the clocks twice a year is silly. But so is calling the moment the sun hits its highest point “1pm” just because you have preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to look like outside at 6pm.
- Temple Grandin, interviewed by David Marchese in the NYTimes. Grandin designs livestock handling systems and is an animal behaviorist; she’s also an advocate, both for the humane treatment of animals and for autism, and is probably the world’s most prominent autistic person. Grandin’s many appearances on Fresh Air present her as a fascinating person, and her website (which has been active since the late ‘90s, and despite regular updates retains a sparse, late ‘90s feel) is detailed and very wonky. I especially recommend her sample designs of cattle races and corrals, and also the center track conveyor restrainer for beef cattle.
- Paul Stamets, who is a fairly prominent character in the Michael Pollan book on psychedelics (which I found quite compelling), gives an overview of his seven now-expired patents on insecticidal fungi. By isolating a non-sporulating form of Metarhizium anisopliae, Stamets was able to convince termites and ants to actually seek out this fungi, which they then bring into their nests – killing the population in a targeted, non-toxic way.
- Dan Wang, on the Sinica podcast, talking about how Chinese officials view the industrial histories of Germany and the US over the past century.
Making & Manufacturing.
- A good, detailed shop tour of Paul Components, one of the mainstay producers of high quality, high style, US-made bicycle components. The section walking through their job boxes – standard hanging/stacking bins, full of all of the jigs, tools, and setup parts needed to produce a part – was particularly fun for me, as the part shown is one I’ve personally installed dozens of (and ride on my own daily commuter bike). In other words: this video is possibly more interesting for bike nerds than it is for manufacturing nerds 🤓
- Something I missed during the pandemic: Boeing consolidated their 787 production to South Carolina, eliminating the assembly line that had been running in Everett, Washington. As a side note, the Everett facility has an excellent public tour, which I took in 2014 and recommend highly.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- The King Road Drag, patented by David Ward King in 1907, was a simple tool used to grade and smooth dirt roads before the advent of widespread concrete and asphalt surfaces. Originally consisting of a pair of logs, chained together and towed by horses, the King Road Drag eventually evolved into the plethora of specialized metal and cocoa husk drags now used to maintain baseball infields.
- Petzl’s (very nicely illustrated) instructions for how to rescue someone from a ski lift. Related, a detailed, behind-the-scenes video tour of a 2.3 km long gondola ropeway in Switzerland; the power synchronization system, at 9:07, is particularly cool.
Distribution & Logistics.
- The Magnus effect is the force observed on spinning objects moving through a fluid – as in a curveball, or a golfball’s slice. As the object spins, the pressure around it changes, creating aerodynamic lift. The Magnus effect also occurs around a spinning cylinder, which is the core principle behind rotor ships – ships that have big, smokestack-like cylinders mounted to their deck, which (when the wind’s direction is right) can be used to generate forward momentum just like sails. Because the rotor needs to be powered, they tend to be used to increase fuel efficiency on ships that have onboard propulsion systems. Maersk Tankers trialed a Norsepower rotor system in 2018, and reported an 8.2% fuel savings; the ship was subsequently sold to an oil company.
- A *fantastic* Twitter thread (and Instagram handle) containing nothing but photos of reports from Northwestern University’s Transportation Library. The graphic design on these old reports is just fantastic, and the titles are incredible. See, for example, the FAA’s 1978 Fourth Annual Forecast Conference Proceedings, the Federal Highway Administration’s 1980 bicycle-safe grate inlets design manual, and CalTrans’ 1979 report titled Conventional Road Safety: A Study of FIXED OBJECTS.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- NASA released the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope, with the message that its “optical performance will be able to meet or exceed the science goals the observatory was built to achieve.”
- electricityMap is a company that compiles real-time energy production & distribution data in 150 countries (their coverage isn’t complete, but they’ve got the majority of Europe, Australia, and the Americas). That data is available via a (subscription-based) API, and available for free on their live map, which shows regional carbon footprints per kilowatt-hour in colors from green to dark brown.
My own home grid power comes from the New York Independent System Operator, which as I write this is running at 221 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per kilowatt-hour – a medium-yellow color on electricityMap’s scale. NYISO’s (slightly outdated) production mix is on page 49 of this PDF; it’s not too pretty, but I remain gung ho about our own electrification efforts. My family put a couple of solar panels on our little roof a year ago, and since then we’ve produced slightly more power than we’ve consumed – prompting me to start scheming about electric options (heat pumps and induction) for our heating, domestic hot water, laundry, and cooking. It’s pretty fun to own your own power production, and finding ways to cut our home’s fossil fuel consumption to zero has become a nice optimization problem for my spare (ish) time.
Related: An interesting interview with the CEO of Otovo, a European online solar installation marketplace, about the current state of the art in solar financing and sales strategies. If you’re curious about how and why to electrify your own home (which you should totally do), the Rewiring America Electrify Everything In Your Home guide is a good starting point – totally actionable, explanatory, and easy to process.
This one-sentence paragraph from the Wikipedia page for time is kind of blowing my mind right now:
Time in physics is operationally defined as “what a clock reads”.
- A totally outlandish (and highly academic) explanation for the Fermi Paradox: Intelligent life forms are out there, but because they’ve invented computers and realized that computers work *way* better when it’s cold, they’ve decided to hibernate for eons, patiently waiting for cosmic temperatures to drop.