Hello there 🙂

Welcome to issue forty six of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.

This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee 🙂

Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…

Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…

This fortnight I discovered that there’s a beetle which can withstand a force 39,000 times its body weight – that’s the equivalent of a 150-pound person resisting the crush of about 25 blue whales.

It’s typically about an inch long, and is rather delightfully named the Diabolical Ironclad Beetle.

Phloeodes diabolicus, the ironclad beetle. Credit: David Kisailus.

I initially came across these tough little bugs, via this article on LitHub about a researcher called Dr Jesus Rivera, who has been studying them for years:

“Scientists who first discovered the bug in the 1800s claimed that when they tried to push steel pins into the beetle to mount it for display, the pins would bend. Try as hard as they could, they could not pierce its gnarled gray shell. When Rivera checked the claim with contemporary entomologists, they confirmed it. They told him that the only way to puncture its exoskeleton was to use a power drill.

The thing was a walking bunker. A tank. Entomologists called it “the uncrushable beetle.” Bird beaks were unable to peck through it. Equally useless were rodent teeth, fox claws, snake fangs, wasp stingers loaded with poison. Scientists speculated that dinosaurs wouldn’t have been able to stomp it to death.

As a guy interested in strength, in toughness, in building machines that could withstand high-impact crashes, Rivera was sold. He wanted to look deeper into the beetle, into the structures that made up its armor, to understand it. He looked up where the beetle lived, and was delighted to discover that, apparently, it resided alongside him on UCI’s campus!

He found them under rocks and logs and the bark of oak trees; he found them all over. Little gray impossibilities beside him all along. He took them back to his lab; he placed handfuls of them in a terrarium. He marveled at how docile they were, how they’d peacefully scoot along his palm and between his fingers like tiny puppies. He came to think the name “diabolical” was unfitting for their personalities. Not once, he said, even with ten of them crowded into a small glass cage, did they ever try to harm or attack one another.”

At some point Dr Rivera heard a rumour that the ironclad beetle could even survive being run over by a car.

I don’t love this bit – running over a beetle with your car because “science” sounds like a dickmove to me; but as you’ve likely already guessed, Dr Rivera decided to put this to the test:

“Using his lab mate’s gray Toyota Camry, he placed one unlucky beetle on the road. A colleague buckled into the driver’s seat. Rivera crouched on the road, video camera in hand. The car lurched forward, its tire crunching over the beetle. Then, just to be scientifically rigorous, the tire rolled over the beetle again. More crunches.

The camera jostles toward the beetle. It is a little wad of iron chewing gum on the road. “No fracture,” Rivera says.

Still, the wad does not move. “It’s playing dead,” Rivera whispers, doubt gusting through his voice.

A long time goes by. Gray on gray on gray. The gray of the beetle, the gray of the road, the distant gray of the Camry, of its smog. Slowly, the beetle rises, sniffs its little mandibles around, and walks away.

“Still alive!” Rivera cheers.”

But why is the diabolical ironclad beetle so seemingly indestructible? The LitHub article is pretty vague on this point, but this article from the NYTimes, is more instructive:

“After his automobile-based field testing, Dr. Rivera and his fellow researchers focused most of their attention on laboratory experiments. They assessed the tensile strength and composition of the beetle’s exterior with a suite of ultrasensitive instruments. The ironclad’s exoskeleton, they found, was packed with proteins that seemed to enhance its durability.

It was also cleverly structured: Evolved from a pair of now-defunct forewings, the exoskeleton stretched across the insect’s back and hooked into a separate structure sheathing the insect’s belly, encasing the beetle in a shell with an airy buffer underneath.

Dr. Rivera compared the arrangement to an industrial-strength egg, with the yolk sloshing gently against a cushion of whites. “You can compress the shell without the yolk, or the organs, getting squished,” he said. Pressed from above, the exoskeleton would bow out slightly at the sides with just enough strength and flexibility to protect the delicate tissues within.

And where the two halves of the exoskeleton met atop the insect’s back, they interlocked like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. “That provides strength at this interface,” Dr. Kisailus said.

A closer look at the exoskeleton’s interlocking lobes also revealed they each had an internal Russian doll architecture — a series of concentric layers that faithfully mirrored the shapes that contained them.

A close-up view of P. diabolicus’ exoskeleton, showing layers of support and interlocking lobes. Credit: David Kisailus

“Having these layers helps toughen the joint,” said Talia Moore, a roboticist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan who wasn’t involved in the study. “It allows some of the stress to be dissipated.” Any pressure put on the structure would get distributed throughout the labyrinth, rather than concentrating in a single weak spot.

“Even if it breaks, it wouldn’t significantly damage the beetle,” said Adriane Minori, a mechanical engineer at the University of California, San Diego, who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s a fail-safe mechanism that nature has found — that’s something we can learn from.”

Why did this beetle evolve this exoskeleton? This article from Scientific American explains:

“The creature’s lifespan of around two years, compared with the weeks or months of typical beetles, “might justify such an extreme investment in protection”, Max Barclay, a senior curator at the Natural History Museum in London, says.

Most beetles fly using their hind wings, which are protected by a pair of hardened wing cases — modified versions of the forewings found in other insects.

However, P. diabolicus is flightless, and its wing cases have become permanently locked together as an adaptation to dry environments. “It evolved as a strategy for maintaining moisture,” says Barclay.”

It also has more detail about the studies undertaken:

“To understand what makes diabolical ironclad beetles so resilient, materials scientist David Kisailus at the University of California, Irvine, and his collaborators imaged the creature using various techniques, including micro computed tomography scans using an X-ray synchrotron, a particle accelerator that produces bright beams of X-ray energy. Team member Jesus Rivera, a materials scientist at the University of California, Riverside, rigged up a device that could rotate the insect’s body inside a scanner while subjecting it to various levels of compression.

Their study, published on October 22 in Nature, shows how the beetle’s wing cases, which lock together and to the insect’s abdomen like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, are able to withstand pressure. The researchers were surprised to see that the interlocking parts of the jigsaw pieces are able to shed layers like an onion as pressure approaches breaking point, rather than being ripped off. “You’d think that if you took pieces like that and pulled them apart, they would break at the neck region,” Kisailus says. This allows the wing cases to take some damage without compromising their overall structural integrity.”

And how the team’s findings might be used:

“The team then 3D-printed similar layered structures and found them to be twice as resistant to being pulled apart as was a type of joint commonly used by engineers. Designs inspired by these beetles could prove especially useful when joining materials with different properties, Kisailus says — for example, the metal- and carbon-based materials that are used in aerospace engineering.”

Moar serendipitous finds:

The Sex Lives of Gen Z

“Enlightenment might be the perfect way to summarise Gen Z’s approach to sex.

Highly self-aware and self-compassionate, it seems like for the majority of people in their early twenties, intimacy is not as messy, or toxic, as it once was for my generation, when anyone speaking of “consent” in the bedroom might have been laughed at for spouting drunken legalese and the word “boundaries” hadn’t been used since GCSE Geography.”

Young people today are f*cking brilliant, and they’re enjoying some brilliant f*cking. I love this for them, and reading this made my Gen X heart very happy indeed.

The Disastrous Record of Celeb Crypto Endorsements

Scores of celebrities touted the life-changing power of crypto at the worst possible time — just as the speculative mania was approaching its peak. From Matt Damon’s infamous ad to Reese Witherspoon’s NFT partnership, Immanual John Milton breaks down the numbers.

Absurd AI-Generated Professional Food Photography with DALL-E 2

Max Woolf uses AI-image generation models to create new, gloriously weird food – anyone for a PB&J in the shape of a Rubik’s cube?

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the shape of a Rubik’s cube, professional food photography (DALL-E 2)

Andy Warhol & “Authenticity”

I love this story about a series of portraits which were not created by Andy Warhol; but were, via a single telegram, transformed from counterfeits into the real thing. (Also, ever with an eye on the business of art, Warhol claimed ownership of those portraits too).

The Women who Built Grunge

Bands like L7 and Heavens to Betsy were instrumental to the birth of the grunge scene, but for decades were treated like novelties and sex objects. Thirty years later, Lisa Whittington-Hill rightly feels that it’s time to reassess their legacy.

Barton Lewis’ Wall Cuts

“Transit workers remove or paper over posters; ‘subway artists’ tear layers to create collage-like effects and add graffiti; time passes and paper deteriorates. The results are a revolving display of found or accidental art, remarkable for their intrinsic beauty, variety and range of effect, and for being the product of random forces and human design.”

Wall Cut by Barton Lewis

You might also like:

Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now

I read Lapvona, by Ottessa Moshfegh (which definitely won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed it). This strange, very dark, pseudo-historical tale will likely appeal to fans of Angela Carter: it’s a heady mixture of magic, corruption, and eerily calm cruelty. I suspect Moshfegh wants us to question the extent to which we’ve evolved beyond the world depicted in Lapvona, and the answer (I think), is that we have not evolved at all.

I loved Ghost Lover, by Lisa Taddeo; a collection of nine short stories about women who so desperately want to be wanted, (mostly by men), that their need for attention drives their own self-abasement. Dear reader, these characters are frequently uncomfortably relatable, and many times I recognised myself within these pages. It’s by no means a cheery read (there’s trauma abound, no hope of redemption, nor even a suggestion of a happy ending for any of these characters). Take heed my loves: this is what happens when women internalise the male gaze.

Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching

Here are a few things I’ve watched over the past fortnight:

  • Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 (Netflix) – This 3-part series which documents the absolute horror show that was Woodstock 99 is grim viewing. 23 years on, organisers Michael Lang and John Scher remain unrepentant and convinced there was nothing they could have done differently. Arguably the documentary makers did a good job of shining a light on the fact that the organisers were never held to account for their failings, but I can’t help but feel like they could have gone in harder – in my view, Michael Lang, (now deceased) gets off remarkably lightly, and is largely portrayed as sympathetic, which I found particularly galling.
  • The Undeclared War (All4) – I really wanted this to be good, but it just wasn’t. The premise is it’s 2024, and the UK is subjected to a cyber attack. The largely stale, male, pale, cis-het bods at GCHQ try to figure out what’s going on, but mostly can’t, but it’s ok because there’s a brighter than bright work experience woman called Saara who notices a thing in the code. YAY! Or maybe YAY! It’s tricky to tell whether or not this is really a YAY because the cyber attack came from the Russians, and the Russians are very tricksy y’know. As the series progresses the action moves at a snail’s pace and people mainly squint at their computer screens at GCHQ. I get a bit bored and scroll through twitter. Then there’s an entirely unnecessary romantic subplot which feels shoehorned in, and meanwhile, the proper plot becomes evermore convoluted. Now I sort of want the Russians to win because our Government are a bunch of over-privileged assholes who (rather bizarrely) knock their knuckles on conference room tables to signal approval rather than USING THEIR WORDS, and maybe it would be better if we just burned this thing to the ground. The final episode makes me want to put my head through a wall but at least it’s over, unless they bring it back for another season.
  • The Sandman (Netflix) – Netflix’s big bucks adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series of the same name is much beloved by many. Dear reader, I’ve not read the original books, so am probably not best placed to comment, (possibly the books aren’t for me either?). It’s definitely, slick, stylish, and has lots of big names in it. Some episodes are great – Episode 5 in particular, is terrific (although the ending felt rushed); but overall, this series left me a little cold. Don’t get me wrong, I kind of liked that Dream (arguably our protagonist) is deeply flawed, and frequently a bit of a self-pitying asshole. But is he meant to be quite so one-dimensional? I feel like I ought to be at least somewhat invested in him as character, but right now, I’m really not. He reminds of one of those pretty, but horribly self-obsessed boys who I used to hook up with at parties, but never gave my real phone number to. He also dresses a bit like them too.

Part IV: What I’ve been up to…

As I mentioned last time, I went away on a singing course with my Dad which was lovely. I got to meet up with Laura in real life for the first time in forever which was ace, celebrated two gorgeous friends’ birthdays, and got to catch up with my friend Amira over Zoom.

I’ve begun prepping my WTS Training Course which I’m beyond excited about, landed a speaking gig in October (more details soon), and have been wrestling with a short story.

What’s next?

Prepping *all* the things, judging the Global Content Awards, and finishing that short story.

Also, this:

BrightonSEO Training Course: Advanced Content Creation for Digital PR

On October 5th I’ll be running a training course in Brighton which I’m very excited about. Here’s a primer to help you figure out if this course might be right for you:

Course Overview

You’ve been tasked with gaining linked coverage on top tier sites like the BBC, the Guardian, USA Today & more; but how on earth do you do that?

Perhaps you’ve seen the success of others, and are wondering why your campaigns languishing, unlinked to and unloved. Or maybe you’ve seen some success but it all seems to be a bit hit and miss, and now you’re now under pressure to deliver results more consistently.

If you’re struggling to figure out what to do next, this is the course for you.

In this course you’ll learn:

  • What makes a good story from a journalists’ perspective
  • How to identify compelling topics and gain a deeper understanding of the media landscape
  • How to come up with ideas
  • How to figure out whether or not an idea is likely to generate coverage
  • Whether or not it’s a good idea to remake that campaign that got a bunch of coverage a few years ago
  • When and how to go about “saving” a struggling campaign, and when it might be best to just move on
  • & much, much more…

Attendees will leave the course:

  • With a renewed confidence in their own skills
  • In a happier and more productive mindset
  • Feeling rejuvenated and excited about their work

You can find more details on the course, and book your spot here.

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