Michael on Used Books

New York City is home to what is probably the biggest used book store in the world. Strand is a real New York institution. A giant two level store in a pre-war commercial building on 12th Street and Broadway always drew me in with its outdoor book carts. Every time I entered the store proper I was already burdened with a good stack of 1 dollar hardcovers and 25 cent paperbacks. Even though I was rather poor at the time, I spent a disproportionately large part of my income on books written in a language that was still new to me. But at the Strand I got a pretty good bang for my buck.

In my many shopping sprees there I noticed an unsettling fact. I almost never went home with the books that I was planning to buy, but still my hands were crisscrossed by red marks left by super heavy plastic bags. In fact, in the area that I was most interested in, golden age sci-fi paperbacks, the Strand was strangely lacking. So when I learned about bibliofind.com, (which is a part of Amazon now) from a little ad in New York Times), I stopped going there altogether. Why waste my time in a cramped non-air-conditioned labyrinth of bookshelves blocked by frequently smelly bibliophiles and snarky Strand employees with crazy tattoos and piercings, when I could simply go online and order exactly what I wanted at similar prices? All hail long tail!

Just a few days ago I popped up from subway near Union Square and decided to see if the siren’s song of Strand’s outside book bins would still draw me in. Next thing I knew I was inside, checking my bag in and holding a stack of weird books. Inside the changes and forgotten details overwhelmed me. Even though they were slow to get on the whole web bookselling train (to this day when I order at abebooks.com or Amazon that have thousands of vendors, I am yet to get one book from Strand), the store thrived. They opened an Annex on Fulton St, another one which I never visited at 57th st and a tiny little booth almost the size of a porta-john in front of the Pierre Hotel, right next to the train stop. Rupert Murdoch chose a good location for his apartment.

And the original location began a slow barnsandnoblefication. No, they don’t have a cafe yet (and if they will I hope it’s going to be Joe’s and not Tarbucks). But they added 3rd floor, an elevator (so now you don’t need to walk outside into the side entrance to get to the rare editions department) and demolished the horrible little bathroom on the first floor. It was kind of weird standing where it used to be. The funny notes and cartoons were still taped to the bookshelves and columns, and the basement still had many antique pipes and old electrical cables (I noticed what I think was a cut pre-war high voltage cable the thickness of my arm in the wall). I saw – gasp – fresh cat5 runs.

When I paid for my books and went to get my bag from bagcheck, I commented on my relief to the fact that the old duct tape encrusted boxes where not replaced. The bagcheck guy laughed and said – hey, dude, this is the Strand. We don’t replace stuff until absolutely necessary. I hope they don’t change too much, although I welcome air conditioning, the elevator and the extra floor. I need to get a new camera and go and take some pictures there before everything changes again.

One of the books that I bough in the outside bin cracked me up because I am such an avid fan of Joel on Software:

My wife asked – “Timesharing of what?”. He heh, back in the 70s (when I was born) time sharing was a hot buzzword. And not the real estate kind.

Can You Smell What Deadprogrammer’s Cooking?

And now welcome to yet another edition of “Gastronomic Adventures with Deadprogrammer”. Since I wrote previous installments I’ve noticed that I am not the only blogger who takes the time to purchase and eat weird stuff. The Sneeze is home to outstanding section called “Steve, Don’t Eat It!”

I’ve read an article (though I can’t remember who wrote it) about the fact that many gourmet foods are initially repulsive to most people. The first signal your brain sends you when your are having oysters, stinky cheese, scotch or caviar is “Dude! This stuff is spoiled, spit it out right now!”. But then, you consciously think, “Come on, brain, this is 25 year old Talisker we are having here. I just paid $225 for the bottle, you better relax and try to enjoy it. Yes, I know that it tastes like peat a little bit. It’s supposed to. It’s a good thing”.

The ultimate gourmet food for which you need to fight with your brain is Durian. Available in most oriental stores in New York, this pointy skinned exotic fruit is widely known for smelling awful but tasting heavenly.

Recently I purchased one on my trip to Avenue U, which is more and more becoming Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Here it is, sitting innocently on my Naked Chef-style cutting board.

When you cut it with a knife, you find several sections filled with custard-like flesh and big seeds.

I have to say that the smell was not as horrible as most places describe it. It was definitely odd, somewhat unpleasant, but not completely overpowering. I found it similar in strength and quality to the smell of expensive sulfur spring mineral water that you might find in many resorts. Nothing even close to the horrors that you might find in any article describing Durian on the web.

The taste and texture of the fruit flesh was absolutely great. It had the texture and sweetness of a creamy custard, very smooth and buttery, tasting somewhat like pineapple, lemon and banana at the same time. It was very sweet, but not in a nauseating way. An absolutely unique taste, very, very exotic.

I can also happy to report not having any gas or any other digestive problems widely reported as associated with the fruit in question. On the other hand I did not eat the entire thing as I am still trying to watch my carbohydrate intake.

Apparently picking Durian is sort of a hit and miss experience. I had the most expensive kind my store had, an 89 cent/lb Mornthong variety. There are other varieties that are maybe stronger smelling and of lesser quality.

Victorian Prank 96 Years In The Making

Here’s my latest eBay acquisition – a wonderful 96 year old postcard featuring currently 340 year old Van Pelt Manor (aka Van Pelt Mansion and Van Pelt Homestead) located at 18th Ave & 82nd St. in Brooklyn.

Ethics of publishing other people photographs and letters are rather questionable to me. This seems to be a gray area. For instance I feel that many posts in found_objects, foundphotos and vintagephoto communities of photos that were ripped up and thrown out, or of embarrassing nature, or personal letters overstep some ethical guidelines. But on the other hand I enjoy them nevertheless.

I don’t think that the writing on this postcard could likely hurt or embarrass anyone, so I decided that I’ll publish it.

It came from someone at 182 Garfield place. A little note on the right says “look under the stamp”.

On the back it says:
New York is a great place, we are “Forty five minutes from Broadway”. Do you see “Kitty” very often. She ran away and never did say good-bye to me. Pump up your Airship and sail over to see me some evening soon.
Youre “Soda Water Tessie”.

The stamp was still attached. The mystery of what was under the stamp was solved rather quickly : being a stamp collector I know how to properly take stamps off. My wonderful espresso machine provided some steam and I carefully peeled back the 1 cent green Ben Franklin (Scott Catalogue # 300). “Was it hard to get off?” – the little prank that “Soda Water Tessie” pulled on Mr. Ray Feathers of Toledo, OH finally saw light of day 96 years later.

I wonder, did Mr. Feathers actually own an airship?

P.S. Taking stamps off is generally a capitally bad idea. Dang early collectors liked to steam off stamps so much that we have very few surviving stamps on envelopes (which are often referred to as “postal history”). “Postal history” items usually sell with a high multiplier to the value of every stamp on the envelope.

Personhole Covers

Forgetting for a second about my gender neutral language skills  let’s talk a bit about manhole covers.

In case you haven’t noticed, they come in an amazing variety of shapes, sizes and designs. The designs are often amazingly elaborate and beautiful. Just like I am not the first programmer to be asked “why manholes are round and not square” in an interview, I am not the first person to notice and write about the designs.

Probably the most popular photography book about manhole covers is Manhole Covers by Mimi and Robert  Melnick. I have it, and it’s outstanding. This time when I checked at Amazon, there was also Quilting With Manhole Covers – A Treasure Trove of Unique Designs from the Streets of Japan  as well as copycats Designs Underfoot and Treasures Underfoot.

Amazon also has these kick ass fake covers for hanging on the wall (as it’s nearly impossible to hang a real 600 lb manhole cover and rim on a wall ).

Just like there’s no shortage of books, there’s no shortage of websites as well. Staring into the hypnotic designs can be very relaxing.

Why did I decide to write about manhole covers today? Simply because New York Post recently ran a story about a somewhat fleshy skateboarder who fell backwards onto an electrified Con Ed manhole cover.  That resulted in her getting literally branded with a design on her back. Even a few letters of “Con Edison” are visible:

The girl is lucky – manhole covers are known to shoot high up in the air due to steam buildup– and a flying 600 lb cover could  leave a stronger impression.

Also  it could be  “Made in India” instead of “Con Ed” as most of the new manhole covers are produced there for 25 cent a pound these days. There’s an excellent article about it from which I just have to pull a few choice quotes :

“In India, the making of manhole covers is vastly man’s work – and it has been for generations. “They say the skill can only be done by a man,” Agarwal said. “The molding can never be done by a female.” “

“The progressive nature of an otherwise primitive workplace exhibits itself in other ways. Inspirational sayings written in English are hung throughout the foundry, such as “Quality is free, but it is not a gift.”

Ironically, few workers can read the sign, let alone the names of the cities on the covers they create.”

Now, unless you are a programmer who’s encountered the ubiquitous manhole question, you must be wondering, what’s the right answer to the question? Why aren’t they square? Let me give you a geek’s answer.

First of all they are not all round – there are square, rectangular, hexagonal and other ones. Here’s an  example a of a square manhole cover (Note “India” on the bottom). This is a small one, but much bigger ones exist as well, I just can’t find a good example that’s both square and says “India” right now.

The answer they are expecting is that it is impossible to drop a round disk into a round hole of the same size. But there’s also a shape called the Reuleaux triangle that has the same property:

With the help of a Reuleaux triangle shaped bit and a template  it’s possible to drill square holes. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find any of these drill bits for sale.

Also, a round manhole cover is easier to roll. Duh. You might also  tell the interviewer about my fishing buddy Michael Prior’s echinterview.org and ‘s techinterviews.com

Close To The Machine

While we are on the topic of vending machines, I gotta mention  hacking.

I remember that a trick with a coin with a little hole attached to a string worked on Soviet payphones, but I don’t remember seeing it used on soda machines.  I never tried it. Mr Krabs in a Spongebob cartoon about the origin of Krusty Krab did that, sot it’s probably an international “hack”.

At UGO one bright person tried to cheat the Coke machine out of a dollar by applying a long piece of scotch tape to the bill  and trying to pull it back out once the machine swallowed it. This broke our subsidized 25 cent machine resulting in an office full of pissed off people. That cost the company a few hundred dollars. 

Then there was an interesting machine at iXL – one that dispenses glass bottles of Snapple. There are 5 shelves, and glass bottles fall down and somehow surviving. Somebody figured out that that particular machine checked if the bottle fell to the bottom before taking the money. If one stopped the bottle by holding a flap that swings to protect the dispensing box at the bottom, the machine was tricked into thinking that the bottle did not dispense and let the user make another selection. Everything was fine, but one not very bright individual caught one bottle with the flap and proceeded to drop a second bottle from the top shelf directly overhead. The dispensing bin was immediately filled by glass shards and Snapple.

.

Some American soda machines have a hidden menu that can be activated by pressing drink buttons in the following order : 4 2 3 1. I activated it once by accident (the dang machine was out of everything) and only now found a reference to this online. Some snack food machine can be induced to show its internal temperature, but I don’t know the key combination.

The company where I work now used to have two presidents at the same time. One liked Coca Cola and another liked Pepsi. Because of that we used to have two vending machines. Now they are both gone and we have only one machine.

And last is but not least : a weird “hack” that some of my classmates used to trick a proprietor of a soda kiosk in Odessa. They cracked a  broken fluorescent lamp open and rubbed the white residue found inside on a copper 2 kopek coin. The coin became silvery and could be easily passed off as a 15 kopek coin. What’s that white residue? Deadly mercury.

All Wright!

In the latest attempt to break the work-home-work-home Worm Oroborous cycle was my and my wife’s trip to Manhattan’s equivalent of Springfield’s South Street Squidport to listen to John C. Wright read from his latest book. The book, which I already pre-ordered from Amazon seems very promising, despite the fact that I hate the whole degenerate genre of Fantasy. You can find my previous rants about Mr. Wright (and assorted other Wrights) here.

We listened to the Wright’s reading of the first two chapters, talked to him for a little while and got a copy of the Phoenix Trilogy signed.

If you want to understand why I am so excited about this author, get a copy of Year’s Best SF 3 which sells for as little as one cent on Amazon and read Wright’s short story “Guest Law”. Then you’ll just have to read everything else that he’s written.

After the reading we went to explore my favorite skyscraper and the SquidSeaport itself (I haven’t been there in years).

One Hundred Views Of Empire State

So I was buying overpriced fotoclips at the photography museum shop. Then I decided to buy a few postcards for sending to my non-writing friends. The only one New York picture I liked half way was the one on Empire State Building with the subway globe. But then I quickly remembered the globe itself was half a block from where I was. So there it is. Zero creativity, 100% clich�. Saved 75 cents.

Post While Waiting For Defragmentor: Blogger Exultant

My favorite modern science fiction writer, John C. Wright, Esq. , also started a livejournal, . I must warn you, that Mr. Wright is as controversial as he is brilliant. A retired lawyer and journalist, Libertarian turned Conservative, a self described Christian Atheist and Stoic he is nothing like a common livejournal blogger.

I strongly urge you to buy Year’s Best SF 3, a book containing a short story called “Guest Law”. This story made me a big fan. Copies of Year’s Best SF can be had for as little as 50 cents + shipping at Amazon.

Unfortunately Mr. Wright’s other short stories are rather hard to obtain, but you absolutely must get his Phoenix Exultant trilogy books. I’ve read the first two volumes and I can’t wait for the third one to come out.

The only thing short story of Mr. Wright’s that is available online is a William Hope Hodgson’s Night Land tribute titled “Awake in the Night“. Now, I am a staunch detractor of the fantasy genre. And I absolutely hate fan fiction. In this case I am willing to make an exception. Yeah, yeah, you heard me say that. But even though
“Awake in the Night” is a very good read and it revealed to me Night Land books which I will definitely pursue, I still wish it was an original Wright story instead of a tribute.

Tivo Tivo Tivo!

TurboNet card arrived yesterday. It’s an amazing feat of engineering – a tiny little custom-made ethernet card that fits into Tivo’s ISA slot and is powered by the motherboard. Install took 3 minutes (good hearted Tivo engineers included drivers for it with the latest version of software) + 5 minutes to staple cat5 to the wall. Well, and half an hour contemplating Tivo’s insides.

What am I gaining from having an ethernet card in Tivo?

Well, for one, it will not be phoning home every day. 30 calls per month at 5 cents each is not a huge saving, but I will not have to unplug the phone cord during thunderstorms.

I already had a burned out modem once. The nasty thing about it breaking was that it kept phone line “of the hook” so that nobody could call me. I had to send my Tivo to a Texan who goes by the handle Electriclegs. He figured out how to fix Tivo modems by replacing a few parts and even made a repair kit available, but I was not brave enough to solder surface mount components myself. The repair cost me $50 + shipping, but the worst thing was being without Tivo for a couple of weeks. Brrrr.

Things left to do:
1) Install bigger hard drive (not simple because I have a double drive model)
2) Mount the ethernet jack flush in Tivo’s case (cold not do it this time because my nibbling tool broke during cutting a hole for exhaust fan on my computer)
3) Install TivoWeb, other neato hacks
4) Learn to solder surface mount components, install memory kit from Electriclegs