2022-05-16 7 min read


Notes, 2022-05-16.

California’s Sacramento River Delta is a fascinating region. It covers around 2,990 km2, about two-thirds of which is used to grow rice – producing a whopping 1.1 million kilograms per square kilometer. Of rice-growing regions in the US, this makes it second in output only to Eastern Arkansas – though, to be fair, Arkansas rice farms cover more than 5000 km² and only produce 800,000 kilograms of rice per square kilometer. Rice was first grown in the Sacramento River Delta by Chinese immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century, but these efforts depended on expensive imports and eventually failed. Then around 1912, a Japanese immigrant named Kenju Ikuta realized that the area was better suited for Japanese rice variants, kicking off a profitable rice-growing industry there. By 2017, 58% of rice imported by Japan came from the United States – most of it from the Sacramento Delta.

This industry thrives on the fertile soil created by draining Sacramento’s vast wetlands – a place that is a critical stopping point for millions of migratory birds on the pacific flyway. While the state government has bought up and restored about 0.75% of the wetlands, it is an expensive endeavor and difficult to scale up. But through a clever reverse auction system, economists at the Nature Conservancy found a way to get farmers to co-exist with the birds by paying them to flood their fields after harvest time, mimicking natural wetland conditions.

Thanks to their efforts, when I visited the Delta last November, a very loud cacophony of bird calls greeted me. Thousands of geese, ducks, and cranes crammed into these wetland-like rice fields, and thousands more blacked out the sky at sunset as they flew over – filling me with joy and optimism for the future of our planet.

-Divya Manian

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was a day in the life of almost every vending machine in the world. In the Members’ Slack, the #projects channel has had some *really* cool stuff in it — from dendrochronology reports on wooden beams felled in the winter of 1797/1798, to DXF nesting scripts for cutting tool profiles into kaizen foam, to little 3D printable chairs for the little plastic tables that come inside pizza boxes. It's nerdy, technical, and full of niche project advice — and it's a *fantastic* spot to just sit back and watch smart (or, at least, creative and well intentioned) people hacking on stuff 🙃 Join us today!

Also: The Prepared is looking for people to write this very newsletter! It's rewarding, and pays well, and is structured around clear deadlines & deliverables. Be in touch!

Planning & Strategy.

As someone who works on enabling processes at scale, I am so annoyed with the catastrophic failure of the US government’s messaging about the pandemic. When billions of dollars are on the line, your processes should mitigate worst-case scenarios while building in flexibility to allow for serendipitous successes. Even if the government simply focussed its messaging on “protecting the economy” instead of “personal responsibility,” so many more people would have gotten their vaccines. Kelsey Atherton’s comparison of the US government’s COVID response to the response to the 1950s nuclear threat helped me understand why I was so annoyed: We forgot about accounting for worst-case scenarios. As Atherton writes:

At the scale of a nation, Duck and Cover can mean more people live after a nuclear blast than otherwise would have. This is a survival that happens on the margins, in the outer bands of radius from the blast. It's here, where getting out of the line of a window can be life or death, that the likelihood of survival could be meaningfully changed through drills. On the scale of nuclear war, increasing survival for some by even modest percentages means a different outcome of millions of lives.
In order to get that marginal saving, Civil Defense needed everyone to learn the same drill, as though they were guaranteed to be in that meaningful radius. Duck and Cover is messaging about one action, designed to save some people, taught as a universal.

We have known since 2020 that COVID is airborne, so why has the government not focused on a structural solution for clean air? We even have an effective technology that is proven to kill airborne pathogens – upper-room ultraviolet germicidal irradiation – a disinfection zone of UV energy that is installed high up in a room, killing airborne pathogens in that area. Combined with a Corsi-Rosenthal box, we could render 96% of COVID and flu viruses inert in a very short period of time. In March, the Biden administration unveiled the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, which mentions this technique, but sadly “recommending” something is hardly as effective as making these techniques mandatory or at the very least the default choice. In fact, Belgium has already started this process: There is a national ventilation plan that all spaces open to the public are required to adopt within a year.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

Japan's railway infrastructure is so impressive, and Seung Lee’s magnum opus on Tokyo’s commuter rail is an amazing deep dive into its history. In the early 1960s, rapid growth in Tokyo’s western suburbs added 830,000 daily commuters to its packed railways. The government-owned Japanese National Railways came up with a metric for congestion on the trains: at 100% congestion, every rider in a train car can get a seat, grab a hanging strap, or hold onto a bar. At 250%, “every time the train sways, my body becomes slanted and can’t move, my hands are immobile.” In 1965, congestion rates were greater than 250% for four of Tokyo’s five commuter lines; by 1995, only one exceeded 250%. Seung Lee’s series covers the tremendous effort to get there, with great details on the metrics used, extensions constructed, the visionary leaders that made it happen, and even an unsolved murder.

Distribution & Logistics.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • Listeria outbreaks are way more common in romaine lettuce than in any other vegetable. Dr. Sarah Taber explains why in a great Twitter thread: Romaine lettuce is harvested using rigs that move along with the workers in the field; when the rigs are exposed to dirty water, biofilm – bacteria that cling to hard surfaces – forms, and is extremely hard to remove. Harvest rigs travel between farms, and every head of lettuce harvested on such a rig is likely to be part of an outbreak, making it really hard to track down to a specific farm or transport.
  • Classroom acoustics have a great impact on a child’s ability to learn, especially for younger children. In 2002, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), along with the Acoustical Society of America and the U.S. Access Board, set forth the first classroom standard (ANSI S12.60- 2002: Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements and Guidelines for Schools), with the recommendation that the level of noise in occupied classrooms should not exceed 35 dBA. In 2016, the International Building Code adopted them as part of the A117.1 standard, which allows a person with a physical disability to use a facility. Adoption of these new standards is complex, but it’s exciting that in the foreseeable future new school constructions and renovations will have to adhere to these standards.


The first Samurai colony outside of Japan in Sacramento.

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