2022-12-19 8 min read


Notes, 2022-12-19.

Recently I used an industrial sewing machine for the first time in years. Whereas domestic machines vary in size, with novel configurations for the controls, industrial sewing machines are blissfully standardized; this shiny new Juki feels just the same as the ancient Union Special at my old makerspace, which felt just the same as the Singer I learned on. Using it for the first time was familiar and comfortable – raising the presser foot required the exact same motion and force as I’m used to, and without even peeking under the table I found myself plunging my left hand into the darkness to access the bobbin case.

Over the past decade my relationship to making things has become increasingly abstract. I’ve gone from working in production, to teaching production techniques as an instructor, to eventually managing all of the administration and logistics to run a workshop. Today my work is even more abstract: I write about how and why humans make things at all. But because I don’t need to step foot in a workshop everyday, I haven’t been making it a habit to step foot in one at all. So, my new year’s resolution is pretty straightforward: Build more projects in 2023. Muscle memory is a pretty incredible thing; like riding a bike, I’ll never forget how to sew. I am grateful that I can sit down and surprise myself with the latent kinetic knowledge, but I’d be happier if I just applied that knowledge with some regularity.

-Hillary Predko

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~5% of opens) was an overview of the (very beautiful) fabric manipulation technique smocking. In the Members' Slack, we've been swapping career advice for generalists, from networking to working toward specialization.

Planning & Strategy.

  • Last month I stopped through NYC to see Straight Line Crazy, a play about the singularly effective bureaucrat Robert Moses. Throughout the play Moses engages in rousing dialogues with politicians and plutocrats, blocking transit development and rolling out freeways at every turn. The script awkwardly shoehorns his rivalry with Jane Jacbos in – as the two never met, she’s inserted through a series of short didactic monologues.

    While the insertion of Jacobs’ character is somewhat inelegant, it’s impossible to reflect on Moses’ legacy without considering hers at the same time. But rehashing the dichotomy between the two – an entrenched bureaucrat versus a grassroots activist – feels out of touch with the forces shaping cities today. Straight Line Crazy is being performed at The Shed, an art space in the heart of Hudson Yards, which is credibly claimed to be “the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States.” It is a prime example of a larger trend: massive, Moses-style public works projects are increasingly rare in the US, but vast private fortunes are reshaping cities and building out luxury architecture for the wealthy. The Shed’s building is literally called the Bloomberg Building – the billionaire and former mayor donated $75 million to The Shed, and helped arrange the $6 billion in controversial tax breaks, tax increment financing, and subsidies that Hudson Yards received. Architectural critic Alan G. Brake calls Hudson Yards “architecture of advanced capitalism,” developed for a “narrow band of wealthy individuals, tourists, and high-income workers.” Which, as a tourist myself, I fit squarely into.

    This is not to say the development is without merit. Whereas Moses razed thriving neighborhoods to build freeways, Hudson Yards is built overtop of an active train yard and displaced no one. Through incredible structural engineering and project planning (a 2016 NYIO trip to the construction site gives a window into how the megaproject came together), it maximizes space without compromising the surrounding infrastructure. Its qualities – good and bad – don’t neatly map onto the ideologies of Moses or Jacobs. I look forward to seeing more art that grapples with the tensions embodied in Hudson Yards: the influence of capital and the global crisis of affordability.
  • The global insurance industry faces many climate risks, on both sides of the balance sheet: “through underwriting homes, businesses, and other property threatened by climate disasters on the liability side, as well as their significant investments in the fossil fuel industry on the asset side.” Despite these risks, the industry underwrote oil and gas projects to the tune of $30.8 billion in 2019. The NGO Insure our Future is making the business and climate case for making fossil fuels uninsurable and tracking the changes. In recent years, insurers have begun implementing fossil fuel exclusion policies; to date 41 companies have restricted policies for coal (making it uninsurable outside of China), 22 for tar sands, and 13 for oil and gas overall.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • If you’re keen to try your hand at some tactical urbanism, check out this guide to guerilla crosswalk installation. It advises donning the classic invisibility cloak (a high viz vest), blocking off a street, and stenciling in a legitimate-looking crosswalk in the name of neighborhood safety. If you just want to take dangerous vehicles off the road, check out this guide to deflating SUV tires.
  • In his recent issue on staple foods, TW Lim pointed out that “artisanal production today is inextricable from industry.” This concept is clearly illustrated in his interview with the head bakers at Balthazar bakery, the iconic NYC baker which is “better than anyone bigger, and bigger than anyone better” (and got a bit of salacious news coverage recently when they banned James Corden for life). Balthazar has automated aspects of its work, particularly through the installation of a 12-deck oven that eliminated the need for manual loading. The decision aims to protect workers rather than replace them, and underscores the point that even “artisanal” businesses can use industrial tools to alleviate repetitive strain.
  • Working with plutonium is obviously dangerous – not only is it radioactive, it’s a fissile material, meaning it can sustain a nuclear chain reaction. This is good news if you want to build a bomb and bad news if you need to handle it in a lab. Too much plutonium in one place becomes “critical,” triggering uncontrolled fission and a deadly burst of radiation. Naturally, there are rigourous plutonium protocols in place to avoid criticality events.

    But in 2011 these rules were ignored when technicians at Los Alamos National Laboratory staged this photo of plutonium rods on a workbench. A criticality event was averted, but the photo set off an organizational chain reaction instead. The technicians’ supervisor simply ordered them to move the rods apart (rather than follow protocol and evacuate the premises), a fact which the lab tried to keep quiet. This lapse frustrated staff who worked on the criticality safety program, and within a couple of years, the vast majority of that team had quit. This exodus was noticed in Washington, and officials concluded the lab “was not adequately protecting its workers from a radiation disaster,” leading to a nearly four-year shutdown of the plutonium handling facility PF-4.

    The frustration and caution were warranted – two Los Alamos scientists died following criticality accidents in the 1940s. The same plutonium core was involved in both accidents, and came to be dubbed the demon core. It’s worth underscoring that plutonium is valued for these properties: fissile material is at the heart of nuclear weapons. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki used cores built at Los Alamos, and while they killed tens of thousands, they aren’t remembered with disparaging nicknames.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • When the e-scooter company Bird first entered the LA market, anyone could earn a bounty for finding and charging scooters. In 2020 they shifted to using “fleet managers,” independent contractors tasked with deploying, charging, and fixing all the hardware in a constrained geographic area. In this profile, a downtown LA fleet manager gives a window into this seven-nights-a-week side hustle, which brings in on average $4,500 per month after expenses.
  • The price of lithium-ion battery packs dropped from over $700 per kWh in 2013 to below $150 per kWh in 2021. However, this year prices went up 7% – the first increase since surveys began in 2010. As with many products, lithium-ion costs have risen across the value chain, from materials procurement to freight and logistics. As costs increase, there are emerging opportunities in the secondary market for EV batteries. One end-of-life battery doesn’t have a huge amount of value, but Cling Systems is building a platform for pooling consumers’ batteries to sell them in high volumes.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.


Celebrating bizarre pre-smartphone form factors.

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