2022-07-18 6 min read


Notes, 2022-07-18.

Lately, I’ve been working with my children on impulse control. At 6 and 8, they often get excited about something that has occurred to them and blurt it out regardless of whether the person they are speaking to is engaged in another conversation.

It occurred to me that this isn’t just a challenge for children. I have to make decisions about what thoughts I choose to share with the world all the time. There are an incredible number of platforms on which I can broadcast my musings, many of which work hard to reduce the friction that exists between having a thought and sharing it. The problem is that not everything that drifts into my consciousness should be shared. Key questions can go unanswered when it is so easy to put your ideas in front of others. What is my goal? Is this the right place to have this conversation? Do I even know what I’m talking about?

Just this week, I had a compelling thought about a controversial topic. I considered opening this issue with that perspective, but ultimately decided that my answers to the above questions weren’t strong enough to justify sharing it. This was a tough call.

Like my children, the impulse to get it out can be hard to ignore. What do I do with these thoughts if I don’t share them? The answer for me this time was to wait. I can’t see the harm in taking time for care and consideration, but I can see harm in chiming in on a serious topic without serious work.

-James Coleman

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was Lee Krasnow's intricately machined puzzles. In the Members' Slack, we reserve all but one channel (#shameless - which is really quite enjoyable) for non-commercial conversation. Curious how we structure our channels? Check out our channel & culture guide here.

Planning & Strategy.

  • I wrote about Meta’s heavy research in VR/AR earlier this year, and the company recently made the somewhat surprising decision to allow reporters into their development labs to go hands-on with several prototype devices. This video is rather long (and has its fair share of Meta cheerleading from Zuck), but the portions related to the engineering work are really fun. Here, the leader of the optics team walks through the evolution of the company’s varifocal lens technology. It has the feel of a teardown, but shows the transition from a bulky mechanical solution to ultra thin electronic focusing mechanism. Here, they demo a rig used to simulate different lens distortions, avoiding the costly process of manufacturing an actual lens.

    It's unclear to me why Meta took this step, as it's unusual for hardware makers to share early stage research devices. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed the opportunity to get a peak at what we might see in a few years.
  • This article discusses the state of offshore wind electricity generation in the US, including the 804 MW wind farm being constructed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. When completed, the array will include 62 wind turbines and generate enough electricity to supply roughly 400,000 homes.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • The term Mittelstand has been popping up over and over in The Prepared’s slack conversations recently, usually with barely restrained nerd awe. It refers to Germany’s storied small and mid-sized manufacturers, often family owned, that are a key part of the country’s economic resilience and long history (until last month) of trade surpluses.

    This primer, though written 30 years ago, gives surprisingly relevant insight into the strategies that make them so successful today. A few strategic ideas stick out to me. Because Mittelstand companies are privately held, they can conduct business with an eye toward smart long term investment. They also frequently inhabit a narrow market niche (ex: labeling machines for bottles, specialty tools, etc.) and devote their resources to dominating the niche. Finally, they are frequently located in small towns and devote significant resources to vocational training, resulting in a well trained and loyal workforce. The Economist draws out these themes in this brief video.
  • In Made In America (which we recently read in The Prepared’s Reading Group), Vaclav Smil praises a casket plant in Manchester, TN for fighting off cheaper options from places like China by using automation and lean manufacturing techniques. It turns out the success story might be more complicated than it appears. Batesville Casket Company (who runs the TN plant) leverages its strong relationships with funeral directors to ensure that they are the only option presented to the bereaved. Some describe the behavior as monopolistic. Bates and one other firm have an 82% market share of the $550 million dollar industry.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • I cautiously cheered the self repair program Apple announced earlier this year, but the initial reviews of the overall experience have been - to put it charitably - poor. The company made good on its promise to provide genuine parts and tools, but those tools are shipped in two cases weighing in at nearly 36 kg (80 lbs). Another pain point is the $1200 credit card hold required to secure the specialized tools for 7 days, a financial risk many can’t afford to take. It’s worth noting that the rental fee for all this specialized equipment is only $49 (which includes shipping). And some people think the criticism is unfair, considering the complexity of the phones being repaired.

    On a more positive note, I recently learned about Daisy, Apple’s new smart phone recycling robot. This thing is an engineering marvel, and is used to harvest some of the precious metals and other materials packed into our phones. Daisy uses computer vision, 5 robotic arms, and a fancy screw removal system to disassemble 200 phones per hour. I enjoyed watching this enthusiastic video walkthrough of the system and its implications.
  • The City of Victoria, British Columbia has released a small set of trading cards, each displaying a different public works vehicle.

    While ogling the cards, I learned about Victoria’s Green Fleet Plan, which will replace 140 vehicles with electric options by 2030. I hope to see more plans like this, because the electrification of municipal fleets can play an important role in the effort to decarbonize.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • Every night, UPS ships about 1.6 million next day air packages through its Worldport facility in Louisville, KY. It is the largest fully automated package handling facility in the world and is fed by roughly 100 jets over a frantic 3 hour period starting at 23:00. When one of the jets has a problem that will prevent it from moving packages, UPS scrambles a “hot spare” aircraft to save the roughly 200,000 pounds of cargo each jet holds. When needed, dedicated flight crews and planes in 7 cities around the US are expected to launch within 30 minutes, else the packages will miss the complex ballet taking place at Worldport. In 2014, hot spares were called on 275 times and saved $32 million in package revenue.
  • I’m obsessed with keitora, the tiny trucks that are the workhorses of rural Japan. They have little more than 2 seats and an open cargo area, but play an important role in the Japanese transportation and logistics system. They are particularly popular with farmers, who use the slight but rugged vehicles to carry produce on unfinished rural roads or narrow residential streets. Their cargo beds can hold about 350 kg, and are specifically designed to accommodate the containers commonly used in agriculture. Plus, they are dirt cheap, often costing less than 1 million Yen (about $7,300). I enjoyed this short documentary, which describes their history and many uses.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • Bartosz Ciechanowski makes beautiful dynamic visualizations of mechanical systems, some of which we have linked to in the past. This time, he describes how a mechanical watch works. The detail here is incredible, and you can play around with just about every component he shows.
  • Researchers have spent decades trying to understand why Stradivari violins produce superior sound, but a 2021 study puts it down to the chemicals used to treat the wood, including borax, zinc, copper, alum, and lime water. Apparently, Stradivari and his contemporaries developed proprietary baths for freshly milled spruce planks that would prevent the completed instruments from being eaten by worms. The baths also happen to have imparted special mechanical and acoustical qualities.


NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed its first images, including the deepest photo of the distant universe to date. It features thousands of galaxies, found within a patch of sky the size of a grain of sand. Space is big.

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