2022-09-26 7 min read


Notes, 2022-09-26.

Besides the classy office and the radically progressive workplace culture, my favorite part of being a corporate management consultant was asking sincere questions of semi-random people within our clients’ organizations. We would kick our projects off with an intense and somewhat haphazard research phase, during which we’d do a dozen or two half-hour interviews. I’m sure some of the people we interviewed saw us as helpful, though I’d guess that the majority were mostly bored at the prospect of talking to us. But to me, the conversations could be riveting.

I was about thirty years old when I had this job, and up to that point the idea of working for a large corporation had basically never occurred to me. Neither, though, had the idea of being paid to ask people direct questions about their careers, their jobs, and their employers. It was pretty wacky: All you have to do is ask someone a sincere question, and a surprising amount of the time they’ll give you a sincere response.

As I write this, I’m thinking, “cool, but how is this useful to whoever is reading this newsletter today?” And I think that maybe the point is that sincerity isn’t useful. In my best interviews I never gained anything; I never advanced towards any goal, or furthered any argument I might be building. In the best cases, I just walked away with a sliver of understanding about someone else’s career, and their job, and their employer. Which, it turns out, is a pretty radical experience.

-Spencer Wright

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~13% of opens) was Anna's plywood basement renovation. In the Members' Slack, the tools of parenthood are as carefully considered as shop tools; this week, parents weighed the trade-offs between reusable and disposable diapers. It turns out there is even a detailed questionnaire to navigate the choices (thanks, George!).

Planning & Strategy.

  • This summer I spent a decent amount of time at the beach, sitting in a beach chair and attempting, at least, to read a book. It was not a very summery book: I’m reading Alfred Lansing’s 1959 Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. The story, which you’ve probably heard, really is incredible: During World War I, Shackleton and his crew were stranded in Antarctic sea ice for more than two years, and they had to take a 1,300 kilometer trip in an open lifeboat to get help, and not a single person on his crew died. Also incredible is the fact that the crew included a full time photographer (George Hurley), and he took hundreds of photos on the trip, and those photos were of course on glass plates, and somehow he managed to bring about a hundred of them back to safety. There are a few in the recent NYTimes piece that was published when the long-wrecked Endurance was found; this photo book is also good. Note: That recruiting ad often credited to Shackleton is probably apocryphal.
  • For political reasons I make it a policy not to use Uline, the ubiquitous packaging supply company. If you want to wean yourself from Uline, I recommend calling up Ecoenclose (or really any of the suppliers listed here) and literally telling them the Uline part number you want and asking if they can sell you an equivalent.
  • UPS, which is planning to hire 100,000 seasonal workers this holiday season, says that their online hiring process takes just 25 minutes, and that 80% of their seasonal jobs won’t even require an interview.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • There are literally no termites in the United Kingdom. As I was reminded recently (we had a small infestation; mitigating and cleaning up after it became a whole thread in the #general-projects channel in our Members’ Slack), many varieties of termite live primarily in soil, entering the human-engineered world only to snack on the ample food (i.e. wood) we often build our homes out of. Subterranean termites are endemic in much of the world, but only one subterranean termite nest has ever been recorded in the UK – in Devon in 1994. Over the ensuing 27 years, property owners living above the nest were barred from doing any home improvement work or even demolishing their houses, under the fear that any disruption might disperse the nest. Their restraint appears to have been successful: After more than a decade with no documented activity, the colony has officially been declared dead.

    Tangentially related: During the Pleistocene, all of the earthworms north of roughly present-day Ohio were wiped out. As a result, basically all of the earthworms now living in the northern half of the continent were introduced by European settlers starting in the 1600s.
  • In 1954, more than 3,000 cases of windshield pitting – literally, little chips in the windshields of cars – were reported in the area around Seattle, Washington. The Seattle windshield epidemic is now understood as a case of collective delusion; windshield pitting occurs as a matter of course, but individual people didn’t notice it until a string of news reports captured their attention. “Conjecture as to cause ranged from meteoric dust to sandfly eggs hatching in the glass, but centered on possible radioactive fallout from the Eniwetok H-bomb tests conducted earlier that year.”

Distribution & Logistics.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.


  • On the television, I’ve very much been enjoying Reservation Dogs, Atlanta, and The Bear. On the headphones, I’ve mostly been listening to DOMi & JD Beck, a shockingly young and virtuosic jazz-fusion/hip-hop/what-even-are-genres-anymore duo. If you’ve got young kids, I really really recommend watching an episode or thirty of Bluey with them; it’s hilarious and clever and cute and it makes me feel like parenting is hard and also it’s gonna be okay and also family time really is a hoot if you’re just able to take a breath and see it that way.
  • In reading the chapter on concrete in Stuff Matters, I was reminded of the Coignet building – one of the oldest reinforced concrete buildings in the US. It was listed for sale when I mentioned it last year in my feature article on carbonatation in reinforced concrete, and since then its asking price has been reduced by about a half million dollars.

Making machine-interpretable assembly instruction sets from Lego manuals.

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