The Soviet Cloning Machine

Recently I saw this meme on twitter:

The genius who ripped this meme from Reddit also brought up Soviet cars as examples of originality, and that really annoyed me. For you see, one of the hallmarks of the Soviet socialism was flagrant disregard for intellectual property. To this day people of my generation are constantly surprised when they discover what exactly was copied and from what.

Here’s a exhaustive list of very iconic Soviet things and their capitalist counterparts.

Volga Gaz and Ford Customline
Lada and Fiat
Zaporozhets and Fiat 600

Concorde and Tu-144 aka Conkordsky
AK 47 and Sturmgewehr 44

“Iron Felix” and the Odhner calculator
Soviet clone of Parker 51 and Parker 51 fountain pen
Buran/Energiya and the Space Shuttle (not to scale)
Casio and Elektronica
Hasselblad and Kiev 88
Milton Bradley Big Trak / Elektronika Lunokhod

Municipal Building in NYC and one of the “7 Sisters” buildings in Moscow

I’d actually like to build a more exhaustive list of these, but for now this will do.

Victorian Echoes

It’s story time, kids. As many of you know, I grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. Cutting edge technology at the time was a decade or two behind the rest of the world, but I’m not going to bore you with tales of reel-to-reel audio, rotary phones, giant computers, record players, super 8 home movies and the rest of hipster-friendly junk. I want to tell you about the remnants of Victorian tech that I remember, ghostly things that still held on a little in the collective memory of Soviet people. These were all ingenious things, the iPhone-level tech of the time.

When I started school, fountain pens were mandatory. The pen itself is interesting enough — it was a poorly made, cheap Soviet clone of a Parker 51, a futuristic looking pen with a hooded nib, an ingenious design that is not seen much in modern fountain pens. When you think of a typical fountain pen it has a large, exposed nib that dries out very quickly. There’s a joke about the aesthetics of circumcision in there somewhere, but that’s not the point that I was trying to make at all.

The point is that my desk still had inkwells for dip pens, an archaic bit of technology. My father, who went to the same school actually learned how to write with these dip pens. Steel nibs allow for a much finer penmanship (look up some examples of Spencerian and Copperplate calligraphy styles on YouTube — you won’t be disappointed).

Soviet post offices still used to provide these inkwells and steel pens well into the 1980s. Weirdly enough, I think these persisted in post offices in America into the 80s as well. I can’t find any evidence to that online, but I’ve seen a cartoon in Mad magazine about it.

Next up is an opera hat. I, of course, have never seen one in person, but Old Lady Shapoklyak, the sworn enemy of the Soviet Pokemon Cheburashka wore one and was named after it. Here she is wearing what might look like a normal old lady hat, but it is a chapeau claque, a collapsed opera hat, the one that makes a satisfying sound when it expands.

It’s more of a fwooomp than a clack, but OMG what a crazy piece of tech. I badly want to actually take one of these to the opera, expand it afterwards and hear that sound.

Then there’s another children’s character, the terrifying Moydodyr. These days he’s a friendly modern sink that promotes good hygiene. Sometimes he carries around a giant toothbrush, just like our future president, Vermin Supreme. But not in my time! Oh no, he used to be a terrifying Victorian-style washbasin.

It bears explaining on how this piece of furniture used to work. In the days before indoor plumbing (many Soviet households in the 1960s fell into that category) would have what looked like a normal sink, but water would be stored in a little tank with a spring-loaded plunger at the bottom. You’d press on this plunger and water would drip down on your hands, down into the sink, and into a bucket that was under it. I have seen a similarly designed soap dispensers in old buildings in NYC. You might ask — but how did people shower? Well, they did not. Once a week they’d visit a bath if they were lucky. They’d also had shirts with detachable cuffs and collars, and sometimes even whole shirt fronts — the ones that you can see roll up comically in old cartoons.

It’s also worth mentioning that my dad’s generation did not have proper gas stoves — all the food was prepared on Primus burners. I’ve only read about these in books, but with the magic of YouTube we can see how they worked. Cooking on pressurized kerosine is pretty hardcore.

I’ve also seen a lot of oil lamps converted to electricity. It is pretty interesting to see that the technology of these things became so refined that Aladdin lamps are still being made. Actually seeing how one works is very interesting – I am fascinated by the design of that glass chimney that makes it glow so bright.

Everything old is new again: WeWork is bringing back communal apartments, maybe galoshes will become all the rage in Williamsburg.

The Dummy Transistor Effect

Marketing technology is a dirty job. One pattern emerges over and over: hyping up the presence of  some technology whether it makes sense or not, as long as it sways some consumers.

Early transistor radios always prominently featured the number of transistors everywhere, and I've heard the tales of Japanese companies including extra ones just to up the count.  

I always thought that was just a legend, but a quick search turned up this amazing article from Billboard. In 1967 the FTC held hearings on the subject:

The clearest thing to come out of the Commission’s recent oral hearing on the “wild numbers rat race” in transistor advertising was that the whole issue is pretty cloudy. It also appeared that future developments in the complexities of engineering and design will make it even more so.

At the Oct. 4 oral hearing, Harry Gelbert, of Excello American Industries, a New York importer who sells to chain stores, department stores, retailers and wholesalers, said his company had to discontinue sales of “fraudulently” stamped transistor sets from a certain Japanese firm which stamped sets as having 14 transistors, when they had only six. Some had “dummy” and “tandem” transistors, some did not even bother to include dummies.

Gelbert said his retailer and wholesaler customers, deceived by numbers claims, complained when discounters would advertise a 14-transistor set for $2.95, when Gelbert’s firm had to charge $3.20 for a six-transistor set. A spokesman for EIA’s Japanese affiliate said the Japanese government had “censured” the offending firm, that standards were continually being raised on Japanese product, and he was sure there would be very little of this kind of trouble in the future.

But importer Gelbert said the "fraudulently" stamped sets were still pouring in “by the thousands” from Korea, Hong Kong and Okinawa.

Billboard, October 28 1967

I bet Mr. Gelbert sported wicked sideburns and the "censuring" by the Japanese government was most severe.

Another case in point is this amazing article from Wikipedia about the Jewel Inflation of 1960s.

It is doubtful whether adding jewels in addition to the ones listed above is really useful in a watch. It does not increase accuracy, since the only wheels which have an effect on the balance wheel, those in the going train, are already jeweled. Marine chronometers, the most accurate portable timepieces, often have only 7 jewels. Nor does jeweling additional wheel bearings increase the useful life of the movement; as mentioned above most of the other wheels do not get enough wear to need them.However, by the early 20th century watch movements had been standardized to the point that there was little difference between their mechanisms, besides quality of workmanship. So watch manufacturers made the number of jewels, one of the few metrics differentiating quality watches, a major advertising point, listing it prominently on the watch's face. Consumers, with little else to go on, learned to equate more jewels with more quality in a watch. Although initially this was a good measure of quality, it gave manufacturers an incentive to increase the jewel count. Around the 1960s this 'jewel craze' reached new heights, and manufacturers made watches with 41, 53, 75, or even 100 jewels. Most of these additional jewels were totally nonfunctional; they never contacted moving parts, and were included just to increase the jewel count. For example, the Waltham 100 jewel watch consisted of an ordinary 17 jewel movement, with 83 tiny pieces of ruby mounted around the automatic winding rotor


Bling bling

Adding gratuitous jewels to watches or transistors to radios might seem quaintly outdated, but I've encountered this technique in technology over and over in my career.

Once I was told of a project where the boss was enamored with a Microsoft product called BizTalk Server. I was never able to figure out what exactly it did back then (it appeared to be an XSLT transform engine of some kind), but it was marketed with gusto by Microsoft reps. It seems to exist today, and by jingo it has everything that you could want out of a piece of software: connect seamlessly, extend to the cloud, and go beyond integration. You wouldn't want a seamy connection, or extend a little lower than the cloud cover, or dammit, just simply reach integration and stop there. 

The Microsoft consultants who actually had to do the work used normal Microsoft products, like SQL Server and .NET to accomplish the tasks that they needed, but at the end they simply installed BizTalk and left it sitting there, not doing anything.

At the time I had to work with Microsoft SharePoint Server, an awful, awful monolithic conglomerate of awfulness. Developing native code for SharePoint was ridiculously difficult. But it had one component that everybody used to get out of having to write native code: an iframe that would let you write a little web app outside of Sharepoint and seamlessly bring it inside. Seamlessly, like BizTalk.

There's no limit to how much you can manjazzle your product these days. Cloud, Big Data, AI, Blockchain, Augmented Reality. I just think we need to start counting the clouds, and the datas, and say exactly how many crypto links are there in the block chains. The singularity is nearer and nearer with each day.

Elevator Wisdom Part 2: Elevators From First Principles or The Fractal of Underestimation

Behold this Twitter exchange. If you read my previous post, you can spot the surety of someone who thinks he knows something, but kinda does not.

Manual elevators do not have a throttle and a brake in the same sense a car does. They have what's known as a deadman, a spring-loaded lever that can move the car up or down at two speeds and stop is when returned to the middle position. It's not like driving a car or even a bike.

Secondly it is indeed true that the skill could be learned in a few hours. You can start your training in the morning, and by the end of the day do it well enough to work through a shift. But by no means does it mean that you can master this esoteric skill in a day. Mastering this skill takes years, decades, in fact.

Here's a typical elevator operator. Watch how smoothly he operates the controls, how he does not need to adjust the floor level several times, how practiced he is. To learn to smoothly stop level with the floor 99% of the time takes a lot of practice, and even when missing the mark, correcting smoothly is a hard skill to learn. You can stop higher, you can stop lower, you can miss the floor entirely. There are two speeds, you can switch to a lower speed too soon, or you can jolt the car by stopping too abruptly. Muscle memory does not develop in a few hours.

Beyond that, there are esoteric skills that are best not attempted by amateurs. For instance, the faster way to stop the elevator is to open the inner accordion door. You can time this maneuver with exact lining up off the floor and the car, and very elegantly increase the overall speed of operation without sacrificing the smoothness of the ride. A rougher, but more impressive maneuver involves stopping by reversing the lever — it is the fastest way to stop, but it supposedly damages the cables, although I saw oldtimers perform that trick from time to time. But most mind boggling is the consistency with which someone with 40 years of experience can stop the car exactly level every single time while keeping up the conversation and keeping an eye on the annunciator.

A skill seems complicated to someone who's ignorant of it, it seems too simple to someone with cursory knowledge, and complicated again to someone who has a good deal of experience with it. It's like some kind of a bike shedding fractal, I swear.

Elevator Wisdom Part 1: The Fear Ouroboros

"Futurama" Mars University (TV Episode 1999)

Ignorance is bliss, and knowledge brings fear. Or sometimes it's the other way around.

There are three levels of fearing or not-fearing something: out of ignorance, out of shallow knowledge, and out of deeper knowledge and experience.

I was once afraid of entering or exiting an elevator that did not come to a stop exactly level with the floor. If such a thing happened, it would stand to reason that the elevator was malfunctioning, and could possibly start moving once again when I'd be half-way in or out. My mind would paint gruesome pictures of being cut in half.

Elisha Graves Otis

Then, when I was in college, I worked as a manual elevator operator. I was in charge of a hulking Otis elevator that was built some time in the 1920s. In the course of my training I learned about Elisha Otis' ingenious safety mechanism.

This finely bearded gentleman invented an extremely simple mechanism. An elevator would have a spring-loaded device that would extend special claws into the notched guide rails if the elevator would fall too quickly. In addition to that, a safety switch turned off power to the motor when the doors were open. In the following years I was not afraid of being cut in half, and bravely dismounted my elevator in any position. 

Later on, working an office job in Midtown, I heard horrible news. An advertising executive tried to "catch" an already closing elevator by forcing her body inside. Instead of remaining motionless, the cab lifted her and squished her against the shaft, nearly cutting her body in half. The elevator remained jammed for several hours with two more people inside.

My first reaction was — this is impossible! The cutoff circuit, the safety device — what happened? What I learned, of course, was that technicians are able to override safety setting with jumper wires and put the elevator into a manual mode. Of course, sometimes they forget to remove the jumper wires, and an elevator can squish you as a bug if you try to force your way in. Now I am terrified of elevators once again, but for a different reason, of course.

Out of the three types of engineers,  Mort is fearful because he's ignorant, Elvis is overconfident because he thinks he knows things, and Einstein is fearful and paranoid because he has an idea about how the sausage is made.

47-50th Street Subway tower has an automatic routing system that promises to give you exactly what you punch into it.

In UNIX, I learned with power-greedy pleasure that you could kill a system right out from under yourself with a single command. This power was almost the first thing anyone teaches you not to do, then, with a devilish glee, tells you exactly how to: run as the user with complete systems permissions, go to the root level of the disk directory, then type in rm -rf *.

Ullman, Ellen. Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (p. 43).

The second blog post in this series will focus on the very non-obvious learning curve of driving a manual elevator.

Happy New Year!

I don’t know if anyone is still reading this blog, but here’s the latest digital (and prophetic) New Year’s card. This was a good year, and things are looking good for 2015. I’ve lost most of the weight that I gained in the previous 5 years, got a new job, completed a number of interesting projects.

Happy New Year!

Aspirational Sugar

Instead of a usual blog post I decided to do something akin to a “trail” that Vannevar Bush was talking about in his famous essay. It’s a jumble of quotes and a story all on the subject of happiness and wealth.

My grandfather once told me a story about aspirations in 19th century Russia. Sugar was considered a luxury item back then, and did not come in highly refined granules. Instead it was purchased in the form a sugarloaf, a gigantic cone of pressed sugar. A sugarloaf would be stored in a special box, and pieces of it would be snipped off. These lumps of sugar were not like modern sugarcubes, they were darker and did not dissolve as easily. Those Russians who could afford sugar would usually drink tea “vprikusku” — through a lump of slowly dissolving sugar held on a tongue. It was considered to be more economical than dissolving sugar in tea, which was known as “vnakladku”.

So the story goes like this. A peasant is drinking tea with no sugar. But he dreams: if I were a merchant, I’d drink tea with sugar “vprikusku”. If I were a nobleman, I’d drink tea with sugar “vnakladku”. But if were the czar, I’d make a hole in the sugarloaf and drink tea out of it.

Felix Dennis’ rich/poor scale from “The Narrow Road: A Brief Guide to the Getting of Money”

£1m – £2m The comfortable poor
£3m – £4m The comfortably off
£5m – £4m The comfortably wealthy
£16m – £39m The lesser rich
£40m – £74m The comfortably rich
£75m – £99m The rich
£100m – £199m The seriously rich
£200m – £399m The truly rich
£400m – £999m The filthy rich
Over £1bn The super rich

The famous dialog from Office Space:

Peter Gibbons: What would you do if you had a million dollars?
Lawrence: I’ll tell you what I’d do, man: two chicks at the same time, man.
Peter Gibbons: That’s it? If you had a million dollars, you’d do two chicks at the same time?
Lawrence: Damn straight. I always wanted to do that, man. And I think if I were a millionaire I could hook that up, too; ’cause chicks dig dudes with money.
Peter Gibbons: Well, not all chicks.
Lawrence: Well, the type of chicks that’d double up on a dude like me do.
Peter Gibbons: Good point.
Lawrence: Well, what about you now? What would you do?
Peter Gibbons: Besides two chicks at the same time?
Lawrence: Well, yeah.
Peter Gibbons: Nothing.
Lawrence: Nothing, huh?
Peter Gibbons: I would relax… I would sit on my ass all day… I would do nothing.
Lawrence: Well, you don’t need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin: he’s broke, don’t do shit.

The story about how Derek Sivers gave away his company.

How To Become Rich By Reading (Not Writing) A Self-Help Book

There’s a moment in just about every reader’s life. A moment when you get a temptation to pick up and read a self-help book. Well, what if I’ll learn how to win friends and influence people (you do it with positive thinking), study the 7 habits of the highly effective people (most of the habits have to do with positive thinking and buying a nice leather organizer), learn “the Secret” (“the Secret” is positive thinking), get things done (you write down all your brilliant ideas in a whole bunch of folders and buy a really nice label printer) — maybe then I’ll become rich, you think.

random self-help book

Yes, the self-help industry probably created a lot of millionaires. Most of them are the people who sell the books, seminars and organizing tchotchkes. I’ve also heard about one dude who found an obscure Victorian era self-help book, scanned it, replaced all the outdated words in it, turned it into an eBook and made some serious bank selling it on a website.

Maybe there are people who have awoken the giant within and now have a 4 hour work week. I simply don’t know. I’ve met a few billionaires and a many millionaires, and I’ve listened to many of them telling the story of how they became rich. Most of the stories involved luck, very good sales and people skills, perseverance, and hard work. But only twice I’ve heard a self-help book with a preposterous title mentioned by these people. This book did wonders for them. I’ll tell you what this book if you’ll buy my book or send me $100 via PayPal. Well, all right, since you’ve been reading my blog for so long I’ll tell you. That one book is … drumroll … Sams Teach Yourself Perl in 24 Hours. The funny thing is that wealth creation can be accomplished with magic words that look similar to this:

my $dbh = DBI->connect(
        $user, $password,
    ) or die $DBI::errstr;

Side note: there’s no apostrophe in “Sams” because the company is named after not after somebody named Sam, but after Howard W. Sams, a contemporary of Dale Carnegie.

In any case, the internet is lousy with stories of absolutely ordinary people who became rich after picking up a computer language book. You don’t believe me? Read this one and let me know what you think.

The Turkish Coffee Syndrome

There are two Turkish restaurants near my house. Both are inexpensive, authentic places ran by native Turks. They sell the usual fare: lamb shish kabobs, adana kabobs, cigara boregs, tripe soup, fresh Turkish bread. There’s one thing that is missing from the menu: Turkish coffee.

Photo by vagabondtravels

That’s right. I’ve asked for it a number of times, and I’ve heard numerous other restaurant patrons ask for it only to be told that it’s not on the menu. Recently a friend of mine, also incredulous at this glaring omission, asked our waiter why exactly Turkish coffee is not served there. The waiter, apologetic, explained that they used to serve Turkish coffee in the past, but it encouraged local retirees to take up the valuable table spots while buying a single cup of coffee. He pointed out that they now migrated to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, where now you can’t find an empty table.

Interestingly enough, prior to learning the mystery of the missing coffee, me and my friend were talking about certain technological deficiencies which were caused not so much by stupidity, but by near-pure malice. I also told him about my (now over a decade old) theory that I call “Reverse Hanlon’s Razor“. I think “the Turkish coffee syndrome” is a much catchier name.

In looking at CMS design or hosting nightmare, I often remember this passage from Ellen Ullman’s book:

“It’s more like you’re hired as a plumber to work in an old house
full of ancient, leaky pipes laid out by some long-gone plumbers who
were even weirder than you are. Most of the time you spend scratching
your head and thinking: Why the fuck did they do that?”

Well, sometimes it is stupidity. But more often than not the problem is not technogenic in nature. Often it’s political or business-driven. It’s not that the restaurant owners don’t know how to make Turkish coffee. The coffee pots (cezve) and finely ground coffee are sold next door. It’s not even that it takes too long to make the coffee (although that might be a part of the reason). It’s just that the rents in my neighborhood are very high and the table space is at premium, and coffee drinkers tend to linger.