Valuable Photos

An acquaintance of mine spends a lot of money on travel and cameras, more than just about anyone I know. But you won’t find photos of famous landmarks amongst his pictures unless he’ll find a way to take a picture of something that nobody photographs – like a bathroom or a service entrance. His photos will stand the test of time.

Collectors of old photos know this: photographers have a herd mentality. In early photographs portraits are very common, but pictures of anything other than people are rare. Yes, old cameras were bulky and hard to use outside, but it’s still not a good reason: the earliest surviving photo is a view out of a window.

There’s a type of a photo that I despise the most: one of a flower. If you have an expensive camera with a nice lens you can go to a botanical garden and take a hundred gorgeous pictures of pretty plants with a pretty blurred background (coin-a-sewers of this type of photos like to discuss “bokeh” – the quality of the blurred background specific to a lens).

And then there’s one type that I like a lot: pictures of workspaces. My advice to you is to take more of those. Forget flowers, sunsets and landmarks: looking back you’ll enjoy these much more.

Here’s a blurry photo of my doorman’s desk from college years:
Screenshot 1:8:13 7:26 AM

And here’s my desk at TV Guide.
Screenshot 1:8:13 7:06 AM

A co-worker of mine kept a picture of his old workspace instead of anything else. He could never explain why he did it, but I found it funny enough to take a picture of it. I always kind of wished I had the foresight to keep taking pictures of my desks recursively – which is a great idea, I think.

Screenshot 1:8:13 7:00 AM-3

On Learning to Code. Or Not.

Alert! Jeff Atwood wrote an excellent post about the “learn to code” movement.

He starts with a tirade full of incredulity about Mayor Bloomberg’s New Years resolution to learn to code with Codeacademy.

“Fortunately, the odds of this technological flight of fancy happening – even in jest – are zero, and for good reason: the mayor of New York City will hopefully spend his time doing the job taxpayers paid him to do instead.”

Let’s put aside the princely sum of $1 that His Honor collects from the job. Let’s even put aside that Mayor Bloomberg is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing – promoting New York’s bustling tech industry. More to put aside: our Mayor happens to be a technology pioneer with a ridiculous IQ.

This all comes down to a very difficult question: should people learn nerdy things when they have little use for them, just for the sake of learning.

I remember a Livejournal discussion that was hashed over and over in the Russian-speaking community. A math teacher was stumped by a question from his student: why was she supposed to learn about trigonometry when she wanted to become a beautician. The teacher did not come up with a good answer, but the livejournalers did dig up some awesome reasons. One well meaning pro-education-for-the-sake-of-education zelot said something to this effect: well, if you work with nail polish, tangents and cotangents figure prominently in formulas that deal with reflectiveness of thin films. That will lead to a greater understanding of how and why nail polish looks the way it does.

On the surface it may seem that Mayor Bloomberg has about as much need to know how to code as much as a beautician needs to know about sines and cosines.

There’s more: executives who learned a little bit about writing code at some point tend to say the following phrase “oh, I don’t know much about writing code, just enough to be dangerous”. They say it with this look on their faces:

Jeff takes this further with the plumbing analogy: since almost everyone has a toilet, should everyone take a course at toiletacademy.com and spend several weeks learning plumbing?

Normally I’m against education for the sake of education. I once argued for a whole hour with a co-worker who felt that _any_ education is worth _any_ amount of money. I did not know at the time that he held degrees in Psychology of Human Sexuality, Biology, Sociology and Communications. He must have been on to something: he made an amazing career while mine took a nosedive soon after that discussion.

Here’s where Jeff is wrong (I know, this is shocking, Jeff being all wrong and such): it is better to push people to learn incongruous things then to tell them that this is a bad idea. Steve Jobs learned calligraphy in college and it turned out to be super useful. He might not have become a master calligrapher, but man, did that piece of esoteric knowledge change the world.

When I was in college I badly wanted to take a scientific glass blowing class, but did not. I deeply regret that.

Are there people who learned plumbing from This Old House annoying contractors? Yes. Are self-install refrigerator ice maker lines causing millions in water damage? Yes. Is the world better off because Richard Trethewey taught it some plumbing? Absolutely.

If anything, attempting to learn to code will make people more compassionate towards coders. I do believe that people who are not already drawn to programming are not likely to become programmers, more than that, they are not likely to sit through a whole RoR bootcamp or worse. Learn to code movement is not likely to lure in bad programmers, but it might give people some understanding of what coders go through and maybe be more hesitant to have loud yelling-on-the-phone sessions near their cubes. Mayor Bloomberg, who enforces open workspace policies everywhere he works, might understand why programmers need offices. Jeff, let His Honor code a bit.

On Sharpening the Japanese Way

One of the many benefits of being my co-worker is that I sharpen kitchen knives to a hair-splitting quality on request, no matter how beat up or crummy the knife is. Sharpening knives is a source of relaxation, a meditative process for me. I own only a few knives myself, so I constantly ask my co-workers and friends for knives to sharpen.

I can track my fascination with sharpening back to the Soviet Union, to the period in 1988, during Perestroyka, when we got a glimpse of foreign TV shows. As a part of “opening up” instad of the usual 3 channels with nothing on we got a major treat – several “weeks of foreign TV.” The show that stuck in my mind forever was from the week of Japanese TV. There was a one or two hour segment about Japanese craftsmen that paired people who made tools with people who used them. There was a segment about a maker of fishing rods and a fisherman and maybe a few other segments. The one segment that shocked me was about a sharpening specialist.

The point of the segment was to bring one of the best Japanese sharpening stones to a sharpening specialist and see what he could do with it.

Japanese blade technology and sharpening methods developed separately from the European ones. Japanese blades are ground to have a complex asymmetrical geometry with one convex side and one flat/concave side. This flat side allows for a level of sharpness similar to a double concave geometry found in European-style razor blades (which are impractical for anything other than shaving), while making the resulting blade much more sturdy. Thousands of years of trial and error also found the ultimate tool for sharpening Japanese steel – a range of soft sedimentary stones formed under tremendous pressure in ancient mountains. There are man-made sharpening stones made of clay, various oxides, and even diamond dust, but the grain size is too consistent – for a variety of reasons nothing can beat a high quality natural stone.

In the TV show that I mentioned earlier they went to a producer of very high quality stones 1. Natural stones that are large enough and don’t have any inclusions of wrong minerals are rare and expensive. A top quality stone might cost many thousands of dollars, maybe even tens or hundreds of thousands 2. The stone merchant/manufacturer produced a family heirloom – a huge and priceless top quality stone which was taken to the sharpening specialist.

The sharpening specialist was amazed at the quality of the stone. He spent a while examining it and making a fuss about the size and the quality. Then he said that he would sharpen a plane blade so that the wood shaving taken with the plane would be completely transparent, only a few micrones thick. He used a series of rougher stones 3 and then switched to the super-stone. Before he started, he needed to prepare it. He used a smaller stone to build up a slurry, and after a while the surface of the large stone became so smooth that the small stone stuck to it and had to be removed with the help of a splash of water. The molecules of the two stones actually intermingled and were held together by Van der Waals force.

Then the craftsman sharpened the plane blade to the point that the flat side of it stuck to the stone the same way the small stone did before. Molecules of metal seeped into the super-flat surface of the stone, and again the craftsman had to splash some water on the blade to separate it from the stone.

The knife was placed into a plane, and the resulting wood shaving was transparent: you could read a newspaper through it. But the craftsman was not satisfied – he resharpened the knife again, and took off an even thinner shaving.

Many years later I purchased a set of Japanese waterstones and a few Japanese knives. I also bought a Western book about Japanese waterstones that was full of misinformation. I only learned how to use the stones properly when I started working at 7 World Trade Center. There is a small restaurant supply store called Korin that is partially owned by a master knife sharpener, Mr. Chiharu Sugai. He has a full sharpening workshop set up in the store and sells a DVD about sharpening. Only after watching the DVD and watching Mr. Sugai work during my lunch break did I get a bit better at sharpening with water stones.

I don’t have a workshop, but I have a healthy collection of man-made stones (same ones that Mr. Sugai uses). I use a wooden board that fits over the sink to rest the stones on, which is easier for me than sitting correctly. These days I can sharpen a knife to a point where it can split a hair held by one end. My technique is far from perfect, but I am getting better. Sharpening provides an extremely calming activity for me, there’s something meditative in ultra-precise repetitive motions that require a lot of focus.

I think the source of my fascination with sharpening is philosophical. You start out with a piece of metal that isn’t that sharp and a piece of stone that is completely dull, and through a very precise set of actions produce a piece of metal that has an edge only a few microns thick that is capable of breaking inter-molecular bonds, of cleaving solid matter.

Having a well-sharpened knife in the kitchen is amazing. I personally believe that it’s not only easier to cut food with a sharp blade, and not only food cut cleanly looks better, but also that it tastes better. A salad cut with a sharp knife is somehow tastier, and so is meat and fish.

The old bromide about a dull knife being more dangerous than a sharp knife is only partially true. A sharp blade is very dangerous and needs to be treated with respect. If you’ll place a sharp knife into a sink and then reach for it with your hand you’ll get a deeper cut. If you force it past a tough vegetable into your hand you’ll also get a worse cut. The thing is, if you do dumb things with any blade you’ll get hurt, and a sharp blade with cut better. But sharp blades inspire respect: you will simply stop doing stupid things like leaving them in sinks or cutting towards any appendages that you want to keep. 5.

*****

1. These are known as “tennen toishi” – “natural sharpening stones”.

2. I don’t remember prices quoted, but I have not personally encountered a stone worth more than $8,000. The point is that large natural stones are way expensive.

3. Thre are many grades of stones based on their grits, but three main categories: ara-to (rough), naka-to (medium), shiage-to (finishing). The large stone was a very high quality shiage-to.

4. The small stone is known as “nagura”.

5. You really should watch Jamie Oliver explaining knife skills.

Here I’m getting a little tutorial my Mr. Shotaro Nomura of Sakai City at CIA event organized by Korin

mr-shotaro-nomura-sharpening

Mr. Nomura demonstrates the difference between a Japanese-style and Western-style blade geometry (in a very simplified schematic)

japanese-and-western-knife-grind

A knife sharpener in Tsukiji fish market – he has a standing setup similar to mine
knife-sharpener-tsukidji

Mentorship

The opportunities to be a mentor or, as Jack Donaghy would say, a mentee, are few and far between in the world of web development. On one hand, few potential mentors want to sacrifice the precious, precious time on junior developers who will likely be gone in less than a year. And then there are the developers who scowl at any attempt to share knowledge believing that to be a mark of showing off.

Besides spending your own time and being a showoff, there’s another mentorship prevention layer: the direct management of junior developers and tight deadlines. A developer once asked me to show him how to do something, but as I was explaining, I could see my other co-worker in a neighboring pod getting more an more frustrated. After 5 minutes, as I was getting into a little more detail, he piped up – well, let’s not confuse […] there — just tell him what he needs right now, Michael.

Some mentorship styles are harsher than others. Here’s an excerpt from most excellent “Coders at Work” about the schooling that young JWZ received from some dude named Skef:

“Like the guy who was sort of our manager—the one keeping an eye on us—Skef Wholey, was this giant blond-haired, barbarian- looking guy. Very intimidating-looking. And he didn’t talk much. I remember a lot of times I’d be sitting there—it was kind of an open- plan cubicle kind of thing—working, doing something, writing some Lisp program. And he’d come shuffling in with his ceramic mug of beer, bare feet, and he’d just stand behind me. I’d say hi. And he’d grunt or say nothing. He’d just stand there watching me type. At some point I’d do something and he’d go, “Ptthh, wrong!” and he’d walk away. So that was kind of getting thrown in the deep end. It was like the Zen approach—the master hit me with a stick, now I must meditate.”

Or here’s a passage about the concept of “nusumi-geiko” that is still alive in Japanese culture:

“The cabinetmaker’s training usually began in his early teens. In the ensuing ten years of apprenticeship, he endured a great deal of sweeping and menial tasks, but was also exposed to the work of the master craftsmen around him. The term nusumi-geiko refers to what actually took place in cabinetmaker’s training and many other trades. It means “stolen lessons,” alluding to the fact that the apprentices were not instructed so much as they learned the requisite skills by sheer determination through observation.”

I am very thankful to the people who took their time to show me the ropes: Lothar Krause, Bill Cunningham, Dan Tepper. They spent a lot of their time explaining things to me.

The Claw or Playing Not So Hard

When I began my career hiring managers still said things like “we work hard, and we play hard”. The “playing hard” usually consisted of drinking tequila shots after work and having either a ping-pong table or an arcade machine or two in the office.

Free tequila shots were always a crowd pleaser. Not so much with the games. The worst offender was the Packman machine. The silly little tune and “WAKA-WAKA WAKA-WAKA WAKA-WAKA” got old really fast. The ping-pong table was even worse: it’s hard to write code late in the evening in the middle of a death march project while system adminstrators click-clack the celluloid ball for hours. Both were gone quickly.

The lone “play hard” straggler was the awesome APB arcade machine that was placed near restrooms. “Help, help”, “yeah, yeah” and the awesome mumbling of the commanding officer deeply etched in our collective brains.

Besides insidious noise pollution, arcade machines make coders burn out even faster: staring into blinking phosphorus is not good after a long and hard day.

So, how can a startup stay true to the Silicon Alley/Valley cliche? I think I figured out an answer. A claw machine otherwise known as a “skill crane”.

My co-worker recently got obsessed with an obscure iphone game called Clawzilla. The original purchase price is a bit steep, but it includes free game tokens. The graphics suck big time, but the remote control functionality and responsiveness is top notch. In theory you can even claim toys caught by you by using a claim code and providing a few bucks for shipping, but that part did not really work for me.

In any case, me an my co-workers somehow rediscovered that claw machines are awesome. I spotted a toy claw machine at a drugstore and could not resist buying it. I cut the wire to the speaker that blasted circus music, but it’s still a bit noisy (but not as bad as the video makes it sound) because of poor gear alignment. We filled it with memory sticks, a titanium spork, minifigs and other geek items, culminating in a business card of our MIA CTO.

It’s still kind of lame. Unfortunately there are no affordable “real” mid-size claw machines on eBay: they were only created recently for prizes like the iPod. It’s kind of interesting: there’s a claw machine for iphone, and an iphone for a claw machine. In any case, these small machines can only be found brand new and cost several thousand dollars. Meanwhile, eBay is full of fully functional $500 claw machines.

Those are great. Load it with old phones, unwanted swag for conferences, etc. Use the proceeds from the quarter slots for charity (be it beer for developers or a real charity), and watch your employees and friends unwind trying to grab that lobster harmonica. It’s a dumping ground for swag accumulating in the drawers as well as a way to refocus and rest your eyes.

The best part? Have your designer make decal featuring local headcounts and localized title card and decorate your machine with them.

Mudsharked

When I worked at TV Guide I had a co-worker who frequently used a phrase “couldn’t we just” (pronounced with a whiney way with a New Jersey accent) to drive web developers to the outer reaches of annoyance. The thing is, in software development there are very few things that are “just” and a lot of resons why we couldn’t.

One of the main reasons is that people tend to abuse just about any feature that you is created for them. This goes doubly for nice features.

Let’s say you have an understanding boss who lets you have some flexibility in your workday hours. You can safely bet that without frequent admonitions to come in at a reasonable hour your fellow cowokers (and probably yourself) will probe the limits of when to begin a workday to a ridiculous degree.

When I worked at a clam counter at Nathan’s at Coney Island we used to have a set of one pint containers with horseradish and cocktail sause. My supervisor told me to keep them under the counter and only furnish when requested. After a number of annoyed customers asked me why “couldn’t I just” leave them on the counter, I complied. What could go wrong?

A day later two homeless gentlemen had an argument over something and used the containers as projectile weapons against each other. My supervisor sent me out to clean the mess with a dose of “I told you so” (apparently this same exact fight happened in the past).

The thing is, your fantasy is usually not enough to envision the ridiculousnes to which features can be abused. For instance, as a fisherman I’ve always had a fantasy of fishing out of a building’s window. When I was taking a cruise around Seattles’s waterfront with my wife, the boat’s guide pointed out the Waterfront hotel, and mentioned that in the past hotel’s management provided fishing rods and tackle in the rooms.

The problem turned out to be not that the clients did not catch fish. The problem was that instead, they caught too many, and left their catch to rot in sinks, toilets and bathtubs. Tired of antisanitary fish carcasses they nixed this feature.

When I came home, I looked up the hotel, and found the bit that the guide left out. This hotel was the place where the infamous Led Zeppelin “mud shark incident” took place. The link is certainly not PG 13, because rockstars, hotel rooms, fish caught out of the window, and groupies is a dangerous mix.

Has a feature that you created ever been mudsharked?

Are Tables Important?

I was talking to a former co-worker about Inc Magazine’s cover story about Markus Frind and his very profitable, but godawfully ugly dating website plentyoffish.com.

My co-worker (a programmer) loaded up the website. He took a quick look around and opened the source of the ratings page. Giggling like Bevis he could not believe what he saw: a gradient bar that was coded as [gasp!] an HTML table with bgcolor attributes.

It looked like this:

And was coded like that:

<table border=0 cellspacing=0 cellpadding=0 width=100%>
<tr height=5><td bgcolor=#204080><img width=1 height=5 border=0>
</td><td bgcolor=#202F70><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#3F2060><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#5F2050><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#7F1F4F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#90103F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#B0102F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#CF0F1F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#E0000F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#F00000><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
</tr></table>

He was going on and on and on about how tables are bad, and mwu-ha-ha-ha — look at this.

I was fully expecting him to take umbrage at the logo, the overall look and feel of the site, at the grotesquely skewed photo thumbnails. But no, all he was seeing is that Mr. Frind “used a table”.

I tried to tell my co-worker that despite “tables” or ugliness this website generates tens of millions of dollars of profit to its creator, that it has as much web traffic as Yahoo while being served a small handful of very powerful servers, that it was created and maintained by a single person who gets to keep most of the profits – but to no awail. The kid could not get over “tables”.

A famous hacker JWZ once was asked about his feelings about “an open source groupware system”. In a famous rant that followed he produced some of the best advice importance that I’ve ever seen:

“So I said, narrow the focus. Your “use case” should be, there’s a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?”

While I’ve never heard of HTML tables (not the furniture kind) playing any role in getting laid, plentyoffish.com must have resulted in a mind boggling amount of action.

Plentyoffish.com, being a technological and aestetical abomination that it is, is firmly rooted in the lower, fundamental layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy and my Web Heirarchy.

At the most basic people need oxygen, water, food, to take a dump/whiz, sleep, sex, and a predictability in environment.

On the web people need hypertext, images, search, speed, and community features. If you provide all of these for a topic that is important to people, you will be successful. Start thinking about “html tables vs divs” first, and likely you won’t get to the important stuff.

Doing it another way – saying, look, I’ll do a site just like plentyoffish but prettier and without HTML tables does not work very well: Frind’s competiors at okcupid.com who set out to do just that are not succesful in toppling plentyoffish.

Ugliness for the sake of ugliness is not a good thing. In the long run people want things to be pretty, like Apple products and not ugly like Microsoft products. But taste, being pretty high up in the pyramid of needs only becomes a factor after all the basic needs are met.

Entrepreneurship Heros I

To celebrate my 2 year anniversary of working for Fast Company and Inc magazines, I decided to write 2 posts about entrepreneurship. Here’s the first one.

The owner of super awesome HMS Beekeeper store recently complained that people told her that she should close “because it’s ‘buy nothing day'”. I’m pretty sure that these people would have enjoyed my childhood in the Soviet Union, where most days were ‘buy nothing day’. Soviet Union was the kind of place where reporting your father to the secret police could make you a national hero, while engaging in business activity was a crime.

I was brought up in an environment where 99% of non-governmental commercial activity was outright illegal, and the allowed kind was considered extremely unwholesome by association. Just about any item produced by the Soviet industry would be stamped with a price in order to discourage illegal arbitrage, like this condom, for example:

These days outside of California it’s hard to imagine a society that considers this much commercial activity evil, but when I was a kid, any schoolchild caught engaging in commercial activity of any sort could get in a lot of trouble. Personal entrepreneurship was literally a criminal activity. This kind of an environment tended to produce excellent jet fighters, but pretty crummy condoms.

In America entrepreneurs get a lot of respect (outside of government and hippie circles), and they tend to start early. You always read about the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates having business ventures in high school and college.

My former co-worker told me a story about his daughter who got into trouble for her entrepreneurial activities in 2nd grade. She and her friend decided to cash in on the popularity of Webkinz. They went into the business of selling hand-drawn counterfeit Webkinz trading cards. Surprisingly they were able to sell a good deal of those. The trouble came when the teachers noticed that they were engaged in market segmentation and variable pricing (which is a topic of one of my favorite Joel on Software articles). You see, the girls were selling cards at a discount to the popular kids and at inflated prices to unpopular ones.

This episode only increases my dislike of schoolteachers. If I were in their place I would have praised the girls for entrepreneurship, and explained to them that it’s copyright infringement that is problematic, while market segmentation is perfectly kosher, even if a little sneaky. I’d teach them about premium vs generic branding and how some people happily pay a lot more for identical items in different packaging.

Link Love 1

Stack Overflow: What do programmers listen to when they write code?

The best note taking tool in the world, Evernote, finally released an API. I really, really love Evernote.

Jesse Reklaw has a new Slow Wave book, The Night of Your Life, out. You can get signed copies from Slow Wave website or buy them at Amazon. Slow Wave is in the top 5 of my favorite comics, and Jesse drew the cat and programmer graphic used in the masthead of my site.

For some reason, my former co-worker Sean posts more New York City photos than I do these days.

The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit: An A to Z Lexicon of Empty, Enraging, and Just Plain Stupid Office Talk

This caustically funny Webster’s of the workplace cuts to the true meaning of the inane argot spouted in cubicles and conference rooms across the land.

At a price even an intern can afford and in a handy paperback format that won’t weigh down your messenger bag or briefcase, The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit is a hilarious guide to the smoke-screen terms and passive-aggressive phrases we traffic in every day. Each entry begins with a straight definition followed by a series of alternative meanings that are, of course, what is really meant.

Take, for example, the widely used, seemingly innocuous term brainstorming:

1. to generate ideas as a group in an accepting environment and in a free-form manner
2. a supposedly relaxed forum in which no idea is a bad idea – that is, until you generate a bad idea and are met with uncomfortable silence/looks that suggest you are retarded or really uncool/the feeling that you are about to be fired

Beyond deciphering corporate commonplaces, you’ll learn the PC term for secret Santa (Holiday Harry); why the Blackberry is “most commonly referred to as a ‘Crackberry’ due to its highly addictive nature”; and that when a co-worker says “Have a good night”, they really mean: “this meaningless, seemingly interminable exchange of small talk is now over. I am no longer speaking to you, and will now flee this awkward social situation. Don’t even think of asking which way I’m walking.”

Just remember to read this only at COB (close of business) to avoid being busted (caught idling by your boss).

From the Trade Paperback edition.