I moved back to San Francisco last week, and in the process donated three car-loads of stuff. Literally stuff—I don’t recall exactly what, and it hasn’t really changed my life. Which led me to wondering how I even accumulated it all in the first place, and ruminating a bit on materialism more broadly.
I had accumulated a lot of specialized tools that I used once for a specific project, and I found myself conflicted about hanging onto them. In the end I gave a lot away on craigslist, but I wish there were more communities and systems for sharing tools. Tool libraries are an example of such a system.
I had a fair amount of redundant tools, often the result of buying low budget initially and then upgrading with more use. I gave a lot of these away too, but this made me realize that getting the correct “level” of a thing is a challenge. Going all-out and buying a complete set of Snap-on tools is overkill, but buying everything from Amazon Basics is also clearly unwise if you plan to use them with any regularity. The answer is somewhere in between—what is the best heuristic for choosing? In the process I discovered Project Farm, an incredibly comprehensive YouTube channel testing different grades of tools, but all this led me back to wishing there were more ways to effectively share tools.
Anyways, are you around San Francisco? Do you want to share tools? Let’s get coffee.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~11% of opens) was a beautiful announcement video for the upcoming Lord of the Rings show (that used no CGI).
Planning & Strategy.
- In high school I made a hobby out of hypermiling my dad’s old Toyota, trying to maximize driving efficiency with throttle and aerodynamic tricks which in retrospect were sometimes reckless. I wish there were more competitive cultures around reducing consumption, to appeal to people like me who engage with competition. One favorite example of this: By showing neighbors’ energy usage on utility bills, Opower got people to decrease their own energy usage. The style guide for this nudge is now provided to utilities.
- The Radar Interference Tracker is an open source tool that uses publicly available Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite imagery to infer the location of ground-based missile systems. These systems have onboard radar which interferes with the satellites’ observation in predictable ways, revealing the locations of the missile systems. Bellingcat, the investigative journalism outfit that created the RIT, has a history of discoveries using open source data.
- A similarly impressive, completely orthogonal piece of investigative work: the Guitar Hero community uncovered a history of cheating from the world’s top player.
Making, Manufacturing, & Melting.
- Polyphenol from strawberries can stabilize ice cream and prevent it from melting for hours. It’s a pleasant surprise that so many years into industrial society and food science, there’s still simple, completely novel things to discover.
- Project Habakkuk was a WWII-era Royal Navy proposal to build aircraft carriers out of ice—specifically, an ice-sawdust composite called pykrete. A 1000-ton prototype ice ship was built in Alberta and took three summers to fully melt.
- An interesting article about the snowmaking operations at the 2022 Winter Olympics, which used 100% synthetic snow. We still don’t know how to exactly replicate the feel of fresh powder: Natural snowflakes grow slowly around an “ice nucleus” of debris or bacterial protein, but synthetic snow forms quickly from a small droplet of water. The difference in geometry has major effects on packing: natural accumulated snow is almost entirely air, whereas synthetic snow packs much more densely. This makes synthetic snow faster and more precise to ski on, but also more dangerous.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- I’ve been following the surprisingly high-stakes drama of McDonald’s broken McFlurry machines for years: links appear in my guest writing on 2022-02-14, 2021-06-21, and 2020-12-21. Recently, third-party ice-cream-machine-telemetry company Kytch is suing McDonald’s for $900 million in an ongoing no-holds-barred legal battle. McDonald’s claims Kytch devices are dangerous and intercept "confidential information" from their ice cream machines; Kytch claims this is defamatory and that McDonald’s illicitly obtained and attempted to reverse-engineer its device.
- The thermal management system of a Tesla Y is wildly more complicated than I imagined. Using a heat pump and some clever clockwork, the system shuttles thermal energy between the environment, the cabin, and the powertrain. A good reminder of how much intentional engineering goes on under the hood (no pun intended) to make things mundane and reliable.
Distribution & Logistics.
- A traffic simulator by Martin Treiber, a professor at the Dresden University of Technology. I find it highly entertaining that politeness is measured in the same units as acceleration (m/s2).
- The cannabis industry remains cash-heavy because of red tape barring banks and payments processors from providing financial services; as a result, a cottage industry of innocuous-looking armored vehicles has sprung up to provide product and cash transport for cannabis businesses. Adult entertainment businesses face a similar dearth of payment processing options, but for a different reason: They face very high chargeback rates from embarrassed buyers, so most processors just opt not to serve the whole industry.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- The Non-Newtonian Fluid Dynamics Group at MIT has confirmed what every American toddler already knows: Twisting Oreos apart leaves most of the creme on one of the cookie halves. The author of the paper classifies Oreos as a "trilayer laminate composite" and a "canonical example of parallel plate rheometry.”
- A teardown of a Ryobi soldering iron with an unexpected twist: a finished independent product being used as a sub-component. An even odder twist, this time with an EKG.
- Top of mind for me because of my recent move: Determining the largest couch that can fit around an L-shaped hallway is an unsolved problem.
- The metacil is a $10 pencil that can allegedly be used for 16 km—not a unit I expected to see in describing pencils—before requiring sharpening.
- The wooden beaded seat covers that were once ubiquitous in NYC taxis are called “survival seats.” One of their purported benefits is to increase ventilation, helping the driver keep cool. I feel like I see less of them now, and I wonder if it’s because air conditioning in cars has improved – or, perhaps, because the vinyl seats on old Crown Victorias were just unusually hot and sticky in the summer.
- Work and study places in Sweden have a lot of microwaves. This seemed so odd that I confirmed it from two separate sources. Alas the reason is pretty mundane: A lot of people want to heat meals they bring from home at the same time.
A kinetic sculpture by Daniel de Bruin with a 1:Googol (1:10100) gear reduction. Spinning the initial gear at the speed shown in the video, the final gear will take 1.11 Octovigintillion (1087) years to complete a rotation.
Thanks as always to The Prepared’s Members for supporting The Prepared. Thanks to Zach and David for links this week! Thanks to Brian for explaining concrete. Thanks to Emily for a crash course in EV battery design. Thanks to Spencer for his saint-like patience in reminding me of guest writing deadlines.
p.s. - Do you know someone with a sandblaster in the Bay Area?
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.