(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘engineering

“A chicken in every pot”*…

How and when were chickens domesticated, and turned into a staple source of protein? As Ann Gibbons reports, new studies propose a surprisingly late date, and a link to rice cultivation…

From chicken biryani to khao mun gai, chicken and rice is a winning combo worldwide. But the two are more inextricably linked than even chefs realized. A pair of new archaeological studies suggest that without rice, chickens may have never existed.

The work reveals that chickens may have been domesticated thousands of years later than scientists thought, and only after humans began cultivating rice within range of the wild red jungle fowl, in Thailand or nearby in peninsular Southeast Asia, says Dale Serjeantson, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton who was not involved with the research. The studies, she says, have “dismantled many of the hoary myths about chicken origins.”…

A savory story: “How the wild jungle fowl became the chicken,” from @evolutionscribe in @ScienceMagazine.

* 1928 Republican Party campaign slogan (to which the Democrats responded: “Don’t have a pot to put it in”)


As we ponder poultry, we might spare a thought for Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth; she died on this date in 1972.  One of the first working female engineers holding a Ph.D., she was arguably the first true industrial/organizational psychologist.  With her husband Frank Gilbreth, she was one of the first “efficiency experts” helping establish the fields of motion study and human factors.  She is perhaps best remembered as the subject of Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes (charming books written by their children Ernestine and Frank Jr.) recounting the couple’s family life with their twelve children, and their application of time and motion study to the organization and daily routines of such a large family.

As we’ve seen before, she was instrumental in the development of the modern kitchen, creating the “work triangle” and linear-kitchen layouts that are often used today– enabling the preparation of lots of chicken.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 2, 2023 at 1:00 am

“So these are the ropes, The tricks of the trade, The rules of the road”*…

Morgan Housel shares a few thing with which he’s come to terms…

Everyone belongs to a tribe and underestimates how influential that tribe is on their thinking.

Most of what people call “conviction” is a willful disregard for new information that might make you change your mind. That’s when beliefs turn dangerous.

History is driven by surprising events but forecasting is driven by obvious ones.

People learn when they’re surprised. Not when they read the right answer, or are told they’re doing it wrong, but when they experience a gap between expectations and reality.

“Learn enough from history to respect one another’s delusions.” -Will Durant

Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works.

Unsustainable things can last longer than you anticipate.

It’s hard to tell the difference between boldness and recklessness, ambition and greed, contrarian and wrong.

There are two types of information: stuff you’ll still care about in the future, and stuff that matters less and less over time. Long-term vs. expiring knowledge. It’s critical to identify which is which when you come across something new.

Small risks are overblown because they’re easy to talk about, big risks are discounted and ignored because they seem preposterous before they arrive.

You can’t believe in risk without also believing in luck because they are fundamentally the same thing—an acknowledgment that things outside of your control can have a bigger impact on outcomes than anything you do on your own.

Once-in-a-century events happen all the time because lots of unrelated things can go wrong. If there’s a 1% chance of a new disastrous pandemic, a 1% chance of a crippling depression, a 1% chance of a catastrophic flood, a 1% chance of political collapse, and on and on, then the odds that something bad will happen next year – or any year – are … pretty good. It’s why Arnold Toynbee says history is “just one damn thing after another.”

Many more affecting aphorisms at: “Little Rules About Big Things,” from @morganhousel @collabfund.

* “Rules Of The Road,” by Cy Coleman and Caroline Leigh (famously recorded by Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole)


As we ponder precepts, we might send prophylactic birthday greetings to Samuel W. Alderson; he was born on this date in 1914.  A physicist and engineer of broad accomplishment, Alderson is probably best remembered as the inventor of the crash test dummy.  Alderson created his first dummies in 1956 to test jet ejection seats for the military.  But with the passage of the Highway Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 (on the heels of the stir created by Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed), Alderson found a much broader market.  (From the first experiments on car safety in the 1930s, cadavers had been used to assess risk and damage; the dummy had obvious advantages.)  Alderson continuously improved his dummies, and later branched out to produce medical “phantoms” for simulations– e.g., synthetic wounds that ooze mock blood.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 21, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

The noble but undervalued craft of maintenance could, Alex Vuocolo explains, help preserve modernity’s finest achievements, from public transit systems to power grids, and serve as a useful framework for addressing climate change and other pressing planetary constraints…

… If you start talking with engineers about maintenance, somebody always brings up Incan rope bridges. Maybe you’ve seen an illustration or a digital rendering in a Hollywood movie. They’re the color of hay and hang with a bit of slack over rivers and canyons in Peru’s rugged terrain. Made from ichu grass threaded into progressively denser and denser bundles, they were ritualistically maintained by ancient Peruvians. They lasted for centuries. Most are long gone now, though at least one has been preserved for posterity as an infrastructural artifact, just like the R32 at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn.

It’s hard to imagine a modern ritual that would be equal to the task of perpetually renewing steel bridges, concrete highways and cement buildings. It would require an entirely new industrial paradigm. One label for such a system is “circular economy,” which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which funds research on the topic, defines as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.”

The concept dates to the 1960s and the work of economist Kenneth E. Boulding, but most of us are more familiar with a related slogan that emerged from the environmental movement of the 1970s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Those have been the guiding principles for the green movement for much of the past half-century, informing everything from municipal recycling programs to efficiency standards for toilets to lifestyle movements calling for “zero-impact living.”

Maintain is notably missing from the triplet, perhaps because it’s difficult to reconcile with sustainability’s implicit emphasis on reduction and restraint. By contrast, maintenance is about keeping things — sometimes large, intensively built things like skyscrapers and subway cars that might be difficult to imagine in the biodegradable utopias of the most gung-ho environmentalists. Ultimately, reduction is prioritized. We must not hold onto things. We must let go like good Buddhists, as industrial civilization becomes merely a painful, transient phase in human history, passing out of us like bad karma.

There is tension in the question of whether to build objects more intensively, so that they last longer, or to recognize that some things cannot endure and thus should be designed that way. There’s no hope for a paper plate in the long run, for example. It’s designed to enter the waste stream as cheaply and easily as possible. Conversely, a toaster could last for decades if maintained properly, assuming the manufacturer hasn’t built obsolescence into it (as is often the case).

More complex objects and built environments, like a transit system or a housing development, compound questions over what should last and what cannot. How do we create systems that can address these questions on their own terms?

The work of maintenance is ultimately a way of parsing and knowing a thing and deciding, over and over, what it’s worth. “Maintenance should be seen as a noble craft,” said [Louis] Rossmann, [owner of a computer repair shop in New York City and a popular Youtuber] “It should be seen as something that teaches people not just how to repair, but how to think.”

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Disappearing Art Of Maintenance,” from @AlexVuocolo in @NoemaMag.

* Kurt Vonnegut


As we take care, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876, during the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, and at the end of a three-day “Convention of Librarians,” 103 librarians (90 men and 13 women) signed a register as charter members of the American Library Association. The oldest library association in the world, It has grown into the largest.


“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”*…

It’s that time of year again– a collection of researchers have received the 2022 Ig Nobel Prizes for work that (as the awarding body, Improbable Research, puts it) “first makes us laugh, then makes us think.” Hannah Devlin reports…

It is one of life’s overlooked arts: the optimal way to turn a knob. Now an investigation into this neglected question has been recognised with one of science’s most coveted accolades: an Ig Nobel prize.

After a series of lab-based trials, a team of Japanese industrial designers arrived at the central conclusion that the bigger the knob, the more fingers required to turn it.

The team is one of 10 to be recognised at this year’s Ig Nobel awards for research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think” – not to be confused with the more heavyweight Nobel prize awards, coming up in Scandinavia next month.

Other awards at the virtual ceremony on Thursday evening include the physics prize for showing why ducklings swim in a line formation, and the economics prize for explaining, mathematically, why success most often goes not to the most talented people, but instead to the luckiest. An international collaboration won the peace prize for devising an algorithm to help gossipers decide when to tell the truth and when to lie.

The winners were presented with a three-dimensional paper gear featuring images of human teeth and a 10tn dollar bill from Zimbabwe, with eight bona fide Nobel laureates, including the British biochemist Sir Richard Roberts, on hand to distribute the prizes…

Great fun with great purpose: “Japanese professor wins Ig Nobel prize for study on knob turning,” from @hannahdev in @guardian. The full list of winners, with accounts of the their award-worthy efforts, is here.

* Albert Einstein


As we chuckle… then cogitate, we might spare a thought for Ron Toomer; he died on this date in 2011.  Toomer began his career as an aeronautical engineer who contributed to the heat shields on NASA’s Apollo spacecraft.  But in 1965, he joined Arrow Development, an amusement park ride design company, where he became a legendary creator of steel roller coasters.  His first assignment was “The Run-Away Mine Train” (at Six Flags Over Texas), the first “mine train” ride, and the second steel roller coaster (after Arrow’s Matterhorn Ride at Disneyland).  Toomer went on to design 93 coasters worldwide, and was especially known for his creation of the first “inversion” coasters (he built the first coasters with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, loops).  In 2000, he was inducted in the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) Hall of Fame as a “Living Legend.”

Toomer with his design model for “The Corkscrew,” the first three-inversion coaster


“The Corkscrew” at Cedar Point Amusement Park, Ohio


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 26, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Most things are never meant”*…

A coastal engineer collects a concentrated sample of algae and bacteria on Lake Erie in Toledo, Ohio

Protein-packed diets add excess nitrogen to the environment through urine, rivaling pollution from agricultural fertilizers…

In the U.S., people eat more protein than they need to. And though it might not be bad for human health, this excess does pose a problem for the country’s waterways. The nation’s wastewater is laden with the leftovers from protein digestion: nitrogen compounds that can feed toxic algal blooms and pollute the air and drinking water. This source of nitrogen pollution even rivals that from fertilizers washed off of fields growing food crops, new research suggests.

When we overconsume protein—whether it comes from lentils, supplements or steak—our body breaks the excess down into urea, a nitrogen-containing compound that exits the body via urine and ultimately ends up in sewage… the majority of nitrogen pollution present in wastewater—some 67 to 100 percent—is a by-product of what people consume…

Once it enters the environment, the nitrogen in urea can trigger a spectrum of ecological impacts known as the “nitrogen cascade.” Under certain chemical conditions, and in the presence of particular microbes, urea can break down to form gases of oxidized nitrogen. These gases reach the atmosphere, where nitrous oxide (N2O) can contribute to warming via the greenhouse effect and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can cause acid rain. Other times, algae and cyanobacteria, photosynthetic bacteria also called blue-green algae, feed on urea directly. The nitrogen helps them grow much faster than they would normally, clogging vital water supplies with blooms that can produce toxins that are harmful to humans, other animals and plants. And when the algae eventually die, the problem is not over. Microorganisms that feast on dead algae use up oxygen in the water, leading to “dead zones,” where many aquatic species simply cannot survive, in rivers, lakes and oceans. Blooms from Puget Sound to Tampa, Fla., have caused large fish die-offs…

If it’s not one thing, it’s another: “Eating Too Much Protein Makes Pee a Problem Pollutant in the U.S.,” from Sasha Warren (@space_for_sasha) in @sciam.

* Philip Larkin, “Going, Going” (in High Windows)


As we deliberate on our diets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that Theophilus Van Kannel received a patent for the revolving door, a design that came to characterize the entrances of (then-proliferating) skyscrapers and that earned him induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But lest we think him “all work,” his other notable invention was the popular (at least in the early 20th century) amusement park ride “Witching Waves.”

Theophilus Van Kannel’s patent drawing for a revolving door, 1888 [source]
Theophilus Van Kannel [source]
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