2022-10-24 5 min read


Notes, 2022-10-24.

As I was writing this week’s issue, I often found myself thinking “wow, I really underestimated how any of this works.” I don’t mean the big obvious things like spaceships or silicon foundries, where I’ve resigned myself to only high level, approximate knowledge. I’m talking about things that feel mundane and pedestrian: zippers, digital clocks, garbage, and car wheels.

Is there a name for the fallacy that if something is commonplace, it must be straightforward? Or am I just dancing around a more generalized possibility: the scale of humanity and our ability as a species to obsessively specialize makes everything complicated if you peel just a few layers back.

-Kane Hsieh

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~26% of opens) was a specialized set of wire twisting forceps that seems to be useful for all kinds of other stuff. In the Members' Slack this week, we're swapping workshop photos and getting a little bit in the weeds about the labeling requirements for commercial aircraft cabin parts. Join us :)

Planning & Strategy.

  • Last year I came across a joke about “a [fictitious] unix tool called 'runk' which stands for Ronald's Universal Number Kounter and handles all math for every machine on earth.” I got a few laughs out of it at parties, but it turns out that the joke is uncomfortably rooted in reality: Network Time Protocol, designed by David Mills in 1985 and maintained by a foundation he runs, is responsible for timekeeping on almost every computer on earth.
  • I used to drive by a building with a big SAP logo in South San Francisco pretty often, and had no idea what they did. Looking up the acronym (Systemanalyse und Programmentwicklung, or System Analysis and Program Development) didn’t help much either. An article attempting to explain what SAP software does was posted in a 2020 issue of this newsletter, but it only cleared the confusion a little bit—and further hinted at the sprawling scope of the company’s products, making me feel like a proverbial blind man with an elephant. The company claims that 77% of all the revenue in the world “touches” an SAP product. I’m not sure what that means exactly; we’ve reached out to the company for clarification, but they just referenced a bland PDF on “a unified, collaborative, and intelligent business network” that included the same quote verbatim.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • If you own anything with zippers, you’ve probably noticed “YKK” debossed on many of the pullers. You’re not imagining things: Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha manufactures about half of the zippers in the world. The company prides itself as being the most reliable choice—in terms of both supplier and product—for soft goods makers, accomplishing this feat through vertical integration of metallurgy, textiles, packaging, and even tool and machine design. Bunnie Huang posted some photographs from a zipper factory tour back in 2015—and don’t miss YKK’s in-house 15 minute anime about zippers.

    I don’t actually like zippers: they feel delicate, finicky, and hard to repair, so I strongly prefer buckles wherever possible. Like YKK for zippers, ITW Nexus is a quiet giant behind a lot of the world’s buckles. Unlike YKK, ITW Nexus does not brand its products—but you have definitely used its most ubiquitous product, the Fastex or Side Release Buckle. I’m particularly excited because it feels like we’re in a Golden Age of buckle design: from small specialty designers like Austere in Washington to extreme load-bearing buckles like AustriAlpin in Austria. My personal favorite buckles are by the German company Fidlock, which specializes in magnetic buckles that can be buckled and unbuckled with one hand.
  • I have a distinct memory from high school orchestra of this kid in the woodwinds section cradling a huge steampunk-looking instrument, often napping or doing homework while everyone else played. The instrument was the contrabassoon, and it gets very few lines in symphonic orchestra. I was reminded of this when I stumbled across the Subcontrabassoon project: an ongoing attempt to create an instrument that plays a full octave lower than the contrabassoon. As explained in the project’s FAQ, its goal is to fill a gap in the subcontrabass register normally assigned to pipe organs, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are not portable. This further led me down the rabbit hole of orchestral frequencies to the rare octobass, whose lowest note (16 Hz) is below human hearing range. It’s such an absurd instrument that I’m shocked the Montreal Symphony’s octobassist is able to play it with a straight face.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • As technology wanes, business based on it will decline until you’re left with only a handful of companies. Then there’s usually a period of stable equilibrium where those few companies survive on the long tail of demand for a while. In some cases, often related to nostalgic media, technologies previously left for dead can see a resurgence: Kodak recently tripled its film production operations, and the vinyl industry is unable to build factories fast enough to meet demand. I’m curious if we will also see a resurgence for the physical media that followed vinyl, like cassettes and CDs.
  • During the Bosnian War, a former Danish Special Forces officer named Helge Meyer offered to assist the UN with aid delivery in his 1979 Camaro. After the UN declined, Helge drove onto the Rhein-Main Air Field in Germany and made the same offer to the United States Air Force. USAF technians up-armored and fitted the Camaro with infrared lights and sent him on his way. He delivered medical aid and toys for a decade before driving it home to Denmark.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • It’s rare to see internal combustion engines in a “V” configuration with an odd-number of pistons: you end up with different numbers of pistons on each side of the V and a helluva balancing challenge. That makes this video showing how Honda’s motorcycle race team successfully balanced a high-performance V5 all the more fascinating. The patent contains some very elegant proof-of-concept math, but unfortunately the performance of the engine itself remains secreted away in Honda’s racing archives.
  • You’re not imagining it: the shape of a typical automobile wheel has gotten dramatically flatter in the last decade. I’d just assumed it was for aerodynamics and/or the constant flux of industrial design preferences, and once again I underestimated the level of nuance in mechanisms: flatter wheels allow for a greater “scrub radius,” which is advantageous in modern steering systems but not in older steering systems.


RoundWay linear roller bearings are hybrid treads and bearings for precisely sliding very heavy loads.

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