2022-07-11 6 min read


Notes, 2022-07-11.

My favorite episode of the Tally Ho restoration is Leo’s visit to Cross Sawmill in South Georgia, where he buys live oak timber for the sailing yacht’s hull. It’s a joy to watch, Steve Cross, the proprietor fire up his cobbled-together sawmill, constructed with parts from “5 forklifts, 9 semitrailers, old sawmill parts, a military Hobart welder, a parking lot sweeper, a fertilizer spreader, and god knows what else.” Live oak is ideal for shipbuilding, with a strong grain and high rot resistance. The short trees grow curved, low-hanging branches, perfect for framing out a hull. Today, few people build wooden ships, and because the dense wood is labor intensive to mill, live oak generally isn’t considered viable for commercial harvesting; Steve’s one-man show is the sole commercial operation.

While some live oaks are logged for niche applications like anachronistic boatbuilding, they are largely left alone to photosynthesize in peace. The ecological success of the live oak and its failure to produce capitalist value reminds me of a Chinese parable about a useless tree, recounted by Jenny Odell in How to Do Nothing:

The story is about a carpenter who sees a tree (in one version, a serrate oak, a similar-looking relative to our coast live oak) of impressive size and age. But the carpenter passes it right by, declaring it a “worthless tree” that has only gotten to be this old because its gnarled branches would not be good for timber. Soon afterward, the tree appears to him in a dream and asks, “Are you comparing me with those useful trees?” The tree points out to him that fruit trees and timber trees are regularly ravaged. Meanwhile, uselessness has been this tree’s strategy: “This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large?”

Odell frames the story of the useless tree as a model for “resistance-in-place,” or the practice of “making oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system.” Steve the sawmill millwright, and Leo the boatbuilder - like the copses of live oaks - have one foot in the door of value creation and the other foot rooted in their unique niche, resisting commodification. We all have to make a living, I encourage you to look for the strange fractal edges that allow you to do it on your own terms.

-Hillary Predko

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was a dangerously confusing interface in Ford SUVs.

In the Members' Slack, the Reading Group is wrapping up Virginia Postrel's The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. Virginia will be joining the Reading Group to discuss the book this Friday; we'll share highlights from the interview with the rest of you in a few weeks :)

Planning & Strategy.

  • Google’s first server, built in 1999, is a mess of wires spilling out of a hand-built server rack, with hard drives propped up on plywood platforms. While it looks like a fire hazard, Stack Overflow co-founder Jeff Atwood argues that it is a testament to the way commodity hardware shaped the early internet. Further, this early decision carried over to Google’s commitment to maintaining total control over their server farms: “Current estimates put Google's server farm at around 450,000 machines-- and they're still custom built, commodity-class x86 PCs, just like they were in 1999.”
  • Makani, an ambitious project that used massive tethered kites to harness energy from the wind, shuttered operations in 2020. From co-founder Saul Griffith in Electrify: “Makani’s technology and execution were sound, but the [commercial wind] industry found its own way to slash costs simply by deploying at massive scale.” While the project isn’t moving forward, the team has set an example of how to gracefully and thoughtfully shut down operations and share back key assets, making their code base, flight logs, technical videos, and archives publically available. Also, see this feature-length documentary about the company’s journey - an archivist joined the team early on and her work provides a meticulous overview of Makani’s experimentation and growth.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • I love this first-person vlog series by a ferry pilot who flies commercial aircraft around the planet while managing all of the challenging logistics from permitting, fueling, and approvals for his clients. The work is a curious mix of adventure and tedium. This pilot is generally coordinating long haul flights to get planes back in commission - other types of ferry flights include ghost flights, flown to maintain slots at high-trafficked airports, and FedEx’s practice of flying empty planes at peak times, to respond to shifting demand and equipment failure.
  • A nice pictorial tutorial explaining the semiconductor ecosystem.
  • If you’ve been following supply chain news in the last couple of years, nothing in this WSJ documentary will be particularly shocking. However, it is an excellent overview of the shifting logistics landscape, featuring interviews with port workers, truck drivers, warehouse pickers, and top economists paired with gorgeous cinematography.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • Another in-depth video from Technology Connections analyzes the benefits of different can opener designs. I really appreciate the enthusiasm and curiosity this channel brings to mundane household tools - if you’re not excited about heat pumps, get ready to be convinced.

This love letter to standards is stunning:

Critics worry that a standardized world is dull and mediocre, a nightmare of conformity and Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Yet the champions of standardization insist that standards create the foundations for a better world. Albert Whitney, who was the standards committee’s chairman from 1922 to 1924, argued that many accomplishments of civilization involved “the fixation of advances.” The committee’s motto in the 1920s declared: “Standardization is dynamic, not static; it means not to stand still, but to move forward together.”


The stark beauty of ice fishing huts, photographed by Richard Johnson.

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