I didn’t get it together to do these last week. But, I’ve got a bunch of good stuff this week. Some music first, and then several good reads. You can also download all of this week’s articles as a Readlist here.
Video: “Hot Knife” by Fiona Apple (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
This was my favorite song from Fiona Apple’s (excellent) album, The Driving Wheel…. I had just assumed by this point that it wasn’t going to be a single, but here it is, a year after the album’s release. I’ll still take the opportunity to share it again. Apparently, Paul Thomas Anderson is Fiona Apple’s ex-boyfriend; I am glad they are still on speaking terms.
Article: “On Henry Ford’s 150th Birthday, a Look Inside His Failed Utopia” by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan
In his never-ending quest to improve efficiency, Henry Ford decided to build his own rubber processing plant down in Brazil. He also decided to build an entire town to staff the plant, out in the middle of the Amazon. He called it “Fordlandia,” because, you know, why not name it after himself? It didn’t work, but actually if he had been doing this a few decades earlier it might have; part of the problem was that by this time, most rubber came from rubber tree plantations in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. There was a period after Goodyear’s invention of rubber vulcanization of rubber (which made rubber tires practical) and the development of the Asian rubber plantations, though, when rubber was gathered from vines, mostly in Brazil and the Congo (with negative results for native peoples in both places, though especially the Congo). Once the seeds for rubber trees made it out of Brazil, though, and the trees had time to mature elsewhere, Brazil was no longer competitive in rubber production. Anyway, that’s a tangent; this short article both summarizes the history of Fordlandia and includes some great images.
Article: Unhappy Truckers and Other Algorithmic Problems” by Tom Vanderbilt
Here’s another article about attempts to increase efficiency. Specifically, it’s about the difficulty of “traveling salesman problems,” which involve figuring out the most efficient route through a series of stops or destinations. The number of routes increases exponentially as the number of stops goes up, meaning that once you get to like 40 or 50 stops the problem becomes so complex that it stymies even modern supercomputers. This is a problem for companies like UPS, for whom efficiency is paramount; if every UPS drive drove just one less mile each year, it would save the company $30 million. These kinds of stakes mean UPS is interested in anything that will save them time, gas, etc. There are all kinds of fun tidbits in the piece, like the fact that there are thee-letter codes on UPS packages like “RDL,” which means “read door left” and determine where the package should be placed in the truck to allow the driver to get it out and to the door of the customer as quickly as possible— the target time for finding the package and getting off the truck is nine seconds.
On a side note, the site this is on, Nautilus, is a relatively new science site that looks really promising, with strong content and great design.
Article: “When Liberian Child Soldiers Grow Up” by Clair MacDougall
One of the most horrifying aspects of recent civil wars in Africa has been the use of child soldiers, some as young as six or seven years old. In places like Liberia, the fighting has been over for long enough that some of those child soldiers are now adults, trying to adjust to a new way of life and deal with the social and psychological consequences of their role in the conflict. This piece mostly follows a single individual, who became a soldier at 13 and rose to a position of command, eventually fighting for both sides in the conflict. One great thing about the article is the discussion of gender; women who were child soldiers deal with stronger condemnations, because there actions are seen as violating gender roles along with everything else.
Article: “Slow Ideas” by Atul Gawande
Gawande begins by comparing two roughly contemporary medical innovations: anesthesia and antiseptic procedures. The former spread very quickly, becoming standard practice within a few years; antiseptic measures, in contrast, took a generation and faced strong resistance. Gawande uses this to talk about the more general question of why some ideas or innovations spread quickly and others do not. His answers to this are not really surprising, but he also goes some distance toward a practical solution. He actually spends much of the piece talking about a project he is involved with in India to reduce infant mortality by improving obstetric practices. It’s all interesting, and the mouthiness with which he moves between the big general question and specific problems is impressive.