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.
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.
- This browser-based SVG nesting tool is nice for optimizing material use for laser cutting.
- I’m a big fan of Lee Krasnow, a machinist who makes incredibly complex puzzles. His workholding fixture for milling a captive D20 is so elegant, and this multi-material interlocking puzzle is the ultimate machinist flex.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- The bilingual English/Chinese street signs are disappearing from NYC's Chinatown. A local calligrapher hand-lettered all of the signs in 1985 but his work didn’t make it into the U.S. DOT’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, meaning when a bilingual sign is damaged the city can’t reproduce it, so it gets replaced it with an English sign. Planning for ongoing maintenance is an essential part of actually doing it.
- In 2020, Second Sight stopped supporting customers’ retinal implants leaving them with obsolete hardware embedded in their eyes.
- To transition away from coal for electricity generation, China’s National Energy Administration is investing in nuclear, aiming to produce 70 GWe gross of nuclear capacity by 2025. As of 2019, Chinese domestic capacity was 49 GWe (70% of the target), necessitating investment throughout the fuel cycle, including a vitrification plant in Sichuan province. For more on vitrification, the process of mixing high-level nuclear waste with borosilicate glass, see our feature on the West Valley Demonstration Project in New York.
Sweden has a very different approach to transitioning away from fossil fuels. While there is a push to electrify transportation, Sweden isn’t giving up on the combustion of fuel for energy - they’re just turning to sources beyond primary fossil fuels. Biomethane, derived from the anaerobic digestion of household waste, is a popular fuel for transportation and is touted as a way to reuse carbon. Waste that isn’t digested into gas is burned to produce electricity and district heating service. However, biogas and waste-to-energy plants still emit carbon dioxide, and while there are GHG benefits to phasing out landfilling, it’s a far cry from full decarbonization.
It’s challenging to quickly and meaningfully compare the impacts of these decisions, which leaves me longing for the interactive, model-based tools for debating climate decisions that Bret Victor proposed.
- Mierle Laderman Ukeles is famous for maintenance art, including a multi-year performance where she shook the hands of each of the 8500 New York Sanitation Department employees. I was delighted to learn about a 2003 project, staged in Japan, where Ukeles collaborated with snowplow operators to put on a heavy equipment ballet, celebrating the “the vigor of humans living under the harsh climate”. We included a photo of the ballet in 2022-01-24.
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.”
- On a 2021-09 visit to Ottawa, I drove by a derailed train off the side of the freeway. In most cities, this would be a shocking anomaly, but unfortunately, it’s a pretty common occurrence for Ottawa’s LRT line. This brief history of the project recounts the years of planning and operational failure, including the multiple sinkholes caused by construction, and the fact that the trains cannot run in the snow. One of my close friends is a news director in Ottawa, and when I asked what it’s been like to cover this line over the years she said, “I’m sure we’ve written over 100 articles about its many, many problems.”
- Antivenom is produced by injecting venom into horses, then extracting and purifying their blood - as depicted by this bizarre infographic.
- My attempt to ace Worldle, the geography Wordle spinoff, by memorizing the Animaniacs Nations of the World Song was shortsighted because the song is not particularly accurate. Luckily, these YouTubers took pains to rewrite it.
- An online feather library.
Love, Hillary Predko
p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.