Arbitrage

It boggles my mind to think that I grew up in a country where most private enterpreneurship was a criminal offence, a felony. It was like this: create a business, be scorned by your customers at best, and at worst get caught and go to a labor camp.

There were of course people engaged in small business that escaped persecution. One particular example stuck in my memory: my father once pointed out a disheveled man rooting around in books at our favorite second hand book store. The store accepted books on comission, with the book owner setting the price. The disheveled man, my father explained, did not work anywhere. He made his living from his encyclopedic knowledge of the Soviet book market. He picked underpriced books and relisted them at market prices. I did not know it back then, but this is a very common tactic called “arbitrage”. In the US it is employed by multitudes of people, from library sale scroungers as disheveled as that man, but armed with handheld computers and laser scanners hooked up to Amazon.com, to venture capitalists buying bad software companies from badly run companies and selling them to even worse run software companies at billions in profit.

In the US “Rich Dad, Poort Dad” author is making millions explaining the benefits of enterpreneurship over salaried proffesionalism, and I am in fact workin for not one, but two business magazines: Fast Company and Inc. I spent almost five years here, but it’s almost time for me to go. I did not line up the next job yet, but months ago I told my boss that I was leaving so that he could hire a replacement. My replacement is here, and I’m close to finishing knowledge transfer.

I have a few startup ideas, but what scares me is not the Soviet Militia, but the lack of affordable healthcare and the lack of a trusted technical co-founder. I am mulling taking another corporate job, and luckily Google and its ilk hoovered up web professionals, so the market looks promising.

For months I would tell myself that I would leave when the Freedom Tower would eclipse WTC 7 where I work. I’d say that time is near.

Brazil

If Franz Kafka had been an animator and film director–oh, and a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus–this is the sort of outrageously dystopian satire one could easily imagine him making. However, Brazil was made by Terry Gilliam, who is all of the above except, of course, Franz Kafka. Be that as it may, Gilliam sure captures the paranoid-subversive spirit of Kafka’s The Trial (along with his own Python animation) in this bureaucratic nightmare-comedy about a meek governmental clerk named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) whose life is destroyed by a simple bug. Not a software bug, a real bug (no doubt related to Kafka’s famous Metamorphosis insect) that gets smooshed in a printer and causes a typographical error unjustly branding poor Sam as a miscreant.

The movie presents such an unrelentingly imaginative and savage vision of 20th-century bureaucracy that it almost became a victim of small-minded studio management itself–until Gilliam surreptitiously screened his cut for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, who named it the best movie of 1985 and virtually embarrassed Universal into releasing it. This DVD version of Brazil is the special director’s cut that first appeared in Criterion’s comprehensive (and expensive) six-disc laser package in 1996. Although the DVD (at a fraction of the price) doesn’t include that set’s many extras, it’s still a bargain. –Jim Emerson

LibraryThing

When I attended a party thrown by Joel Spolsky at his apartment, I got to browse through his library. Joel’s library was somewhat bigger and better organized than mine, but with a significant overlap: on almost every shelf I encountered at least several books that I already had or had in my wishlist.

Keeping a large library is something that I feel a little guilty about. Living space is precious and books take up a lot of it. One of my livejournal friends told me that he does not keep more than a small bookshelf of books at home (although he reads more than I do). Once he’s done with a book he either sells it at Half Price Books or gives it to a friend or acquaintance.

So why do I keep all the books? Besides the obvious vanity: look how sophisticated and edjumacated I am, there are other, more subtle reasons. When I was little, my father had an even bigger library. It was a great: exploring hundreds of books right at home was a great joy. My bed was located right under a huge bookshelf – if I wanted some bedtime reading all I had to do was to stretch my hand.

Joel put it best that evening: he feels that if somebody would read all the books that he has read, that person would start thinking similarly. A library is a sort of a mind dump, a memex chain. It becomes a part of who you are. Giving my library up would be extremely difficult for me. Call it the collector’s instinct, a fetish – it does not matter. Some poor people just are attached to physical books.

One of the reasons I got a job at TV Guide was because at the time it purchased two most promising eBook companies, NuvoMedia and Softbook. It thought that the electronic revolution would finally happen and we’d be reading from small electronic tablets, like on Star Trek. I do love paper books, but the promise of instant gratification and the library in a chip that was promised to us so long ago was even more tempting.

Sadly, the two companies were deprived of resources and smothered. I still think that the tablet reader is in our near future, and the Sony eInk tablet is a step in the right direction, although I am so displeased with Sony for a number of reasons (about which I’ll rant some other time) that I refuse to buy any of their products. In any case, my former co-worker Martin Eberhard, the founder of NuvoMedia (maker of the more successful and practical RocketBook) is now building awesome electric cars. I really wish I had a chance to interact with him at TVG — I share his fascination with Tesla and world changing technologies.

Since the ebook revolution is not coming any time soon, I finally decided to do something about keeping my books organized and joined LibraryThing. LibraryThing is a great online tool that allows you to create a catalog of your books by either typing in an ISBN number or book title. The interface is super usable. To make cataloging even faster I dug out my good ‘ol CueCat that I “declawed” back in the day. Seeing how crappy it was, I broke down and bought a real usb laser barcode scanner off eBay. It works like a charm – there’s a rotating laser inside and everything. Indeed, you get what you pay for.

I simply scan the barcode (if there’s one) or type in the title, add a tag that contains a shelf number – and that’s it. Now if I need to find a book I can simply search for it and find out which shelf it’s on. I don’t really need a more exact location. So far I’ve entered about 250 books. This covers the kitchen, bathroom and a couple of shelves in the living room. Altogether I have 2 Ikea Billys in the living room, 2 in one bedroom and 3 in another. In my estimation there should be at least 2000 books in my library, although a friend of mine thinks that it’s more like 1000. We’ll see who’s right once I’ll finish the catalog. My friend estimated (conservatively) that I spent about $5 per book, so my books must have cost me $5-10K. I feel kind of like Carrie from Sex and the City who had about $40K worth of Blahniks in her closet.

Optimus Mini Three Full Review

I once read a book called “The Mouse Driver Chronicles: The True-Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs” about two guys who started their own company with an unorthodox business plan: making a real, physical product and selling it. This happened during the dot com era, when everyone was making money hand over fist with immaterial products: websites, content, synergy and such. At the very most, bits and bytes would overlap with physical world in online stores – you could order something online and get it delivered, but there were very few companies that produced an actual product. Well, there was one place that would send a real dog turd to a recipient of your choice, but they went under and I can’t even find their website. “Brick and Mortar,” a metaphor for physical world (as opposed to online) stores became a pejorative.

So, these two guys embarked on creating a company with a single product: a mouse that is shaped like golf driver and selling it to big novelty stores and catalogs. Very not dot-com. Designing the product was easy: take a golf driver head, slap mouse buttons on it – there it is. Dealing with the manufacturer was a lot more difficult. These days most of electronic products are made in China, and flying there is pretty expensive. You have to deal with the language barrier, timezone shift, and cultural differences, while collaborating on making a physical product. A single miscommunication and a whole batch worth tens of thousands of dollars might be ruined.

This is the reason why so many great product ideas go unrealized. A great example of that is SiliconFilm: a film roll-sized device that would convert your regular SLR into a digital one. Many people would want to buy one, but it’s been a stady winner of Wired’s vaporware awards.

Mousedriver was a simple product: a stock mouse in a slightly different housing. When I’ve heard that Art. Lebedev studio was actually planning to make one an OLED custom input device, Optimus Mini Three, I had my doubts that it would ever become real, but plunked down 100 bucks (a special pre-order price, it’s $160 or so now) and was prepared to get my money back in a year or two. Instead, in less than half a year I got a parcel from Taiwan. Inside was a working Optimus Mini keyboard. A was dumbstruck.

Now, Art. Lebedev Studio is a slightly more serious outfit than the mousedriver guys. It’s a large (about 150 people) design firm lead by a brilliant designer Artemy Lebedev. This guy:

Artemy (aka Tema aka Art.) Lebedev is so notorious in Russian web design scene, that he goes by the moniker “Youknowwho.” The Studio is based in Moscow, with satellite offices in Latvia and Ukraine. Web design is their bread and butter, but lately they’ve been branching out into industrial design. Starting with a funky coffee mug called ColorShift Atmark, they’ve been steadily building their portfolio of actually manufactured objects.

There are only two other design companies that excite me as much, IDEO and Frog Design. Lebedev Studio in my mind is destined to be as great as IDEO. One day I found out that my favorite toothpaste tube(Crest Neat Squeeze) and toothbrush (the “fat” Oral-B one) were both designed by IDEO, as well as many other wonderful things. Good design is very important to me, and Art. Lebedev Studio is finally starting to come out with things that I can buy.

The concept design for a keyboard with buttons containing little OLED screens called Optimus recieved a lot press coverage. Lebedev would be crazy to attempt manufacturing something complicated like that, just as it would have been stupid to attempt to create Apollo spacecraft without building a Redstone rocket first. So Youknowwho decided to do a proof of concept – a three button OLED “keyboard” and called it Optimus Mini Three. As I mentioned before, mine arrived from Taiwan a short time ago.

I opened the box, plugged in the USB cable, installed the software and was up and running in about a minute. USB devices are supposed to be plug and play, but can be very finicky – refuse to be recognized, fail to install drivers, etc. Wasn’t the case with OM3 – the usb communication code is rock solid.

One thing you should know about the organic led screens is that they are extremely hard to photograph. They behave kind of like the old tv screens and computer monitors, having some sort of a refresh scan. Ideally, I would take pictures in a professional light tent with a camera on a tripod taking a lot of pictures with a slow shutter speed. I ended up taking a lot of pictures hand holding the camera with the exposure of 1/13th of a second. My lens has an anti-shake feature and I have very steady hands, but the pictures could be a touch sharper if I used a tripod. There are also problems with moire pattern that shows up in pictures, but is of course not visible to the human eye.

Here I loaded some sample images from the web. They look very crisp live, but even with all the camera artifacts, they look passable photographed. The contrast and resolution is very impressive. Also, the plastic that covers the screens gives off very little glare and does not hold fingerprints well. The only thing that shows up is light-colored specks of dust. I did not even bother wiping down the buttons after pressing them for the most part.

Here’s an example of the silly slot machine game that comes with the software.

Here’s a closeup of a single button. There is a bit of an issue with the pixels right at the top and bottom: they are a bit off.

The memory and processor resource tracking application shows a \little artifact: a small stripe of dead pixels. This seems to be a software issue though: these pixels work in other applets and images, and actually show up in the software preview. In resource monitor mode the software itself takes about 10% of processor time for itself. This can probably improved, but this is not much more than I would expect from any resource monitoring application. Overall the “configurator” software is in a pretty solid beta. It does not crash, but certain features need some work: the Windows Media Player widget keeps scrolling “Winamp” messages, time and weather widget does not change the weather and is hard to read, etc.

I could not resist opening the this thing up. I pried up the non-skid rubber and found two screws. Mr. Lebedev has a habit of leaving funny notes in code comments of most of his websites. I was looking for a message, or the design team’s signature on the inside of the case (like with the original Apple Macintosh), but did not find anything.

The keyboard is not completely silent – when in operation it generates a very faint buzzing sound and the buttons are slightly warm to the touch. I thought that there might a little fan inside, but did not find one.

The keyboard looks like it’s made out of metal, but it’s actually very high quality plastic. To make it more hefty, the designers used two strips of metal as wedges that hold the pcb in place.

I did not take apart the screen assembly, but unlike most electronic devices these days, the mini keyboard seems to have been designed with future service in mind. Replacing the screens is easily within the abilities of do-it-yourselfers. As you can see, the key mechanism is the soft, rather than clicky one. This is a matter of preference, of course, but a click, as a feedback mechanism would be nice.

A lot of message board nerds cry – “unlike the full keyboard it’s useless!” The usefulness of mini three is in the software, of course. Even in it’s present state with one minute of spare time I came up with at least one cool use for it – a three webcam viewer. The picture is worse than the original, but the idea is that the left button shows Mount Fuji (at the moment under the veil of the night), the middle one – the Empire State Building and the right one – a live seahore webcam that lets me know what the weather is at my favorite fishing hole. I haven’t played with the SDK kit that is available yet, but it seems to be super nice. “What can I do with this?” – whine some on digg and reddit message boards. A hacker’s reaction would be different – “what can’t I do with this!”

160 bucks seems like a lot of money for a three button keyboard. I’ll admit, it’s not for everyone. The thing is, people spend a lot more on stupid case modifications and other blinkenlghts. And this well-designed gem of an accessory would be the coolest thing as far as the eye can see in your personal hell of a cubefarm. It’s a little hackable art piece. Practical? Not very. Cool? You bet your squeedly-spootch. Is it a good deal? Well, a much lamer lcd display goes for 80 bucks. A very neat laser keyboard goes for 180. Shiny is expensive.

I have one gripe with the design. The keyboard is made so that it will lie flat. I’d like to have a little wedge, so I’d be able to see it at an angle (I think I’ll make one myself). What I do like, is that the screens are easily rotatable in software, so you can just lay it vertically.

Of course, it’s a bad idea to program Optimus Mini Three to trigger self destruct, as it’s not cat-proof. But I think I’ll program a cat toy sequence in it though. So far the plastic stood up very well to cat claws.

For sticking with this lengthy and rambling post, I’ll let you take a little glimpse in my geeky life. Here’s a snapshot of a part of my table, including my fancy input accessories, for which, as you might have noticed, I have a bit of a weakness.

Cats and the Home Office

My home office is located in the living room these days, across from my wife’s harpsichord and organ. It consists of a sprawling Ikea GALANT desk with office supplies, computer equipment and cats covering most of its surface.

In particular, I have a Sharp AM-900 Digital Office Laser Copier/Printer/Fax/Scanner that I bought on Amazon for two hundred-something dollars. Basically it’s a decent standalone copier, an ok fax (I am not sure if it can actually print out confirmations). As far as printer and scanner functions go, the drivers are rather crunchy – I have to frequently unplug/reinstall them which is a major bummer. Also, Sharp does not have the drivers available online, so I have to keep the installation cd on my hard drive. But the copier and fax functions alone are worth that money, so I am glad I got it.

What I am not glad about is that Tilde the Cat figured out how to press the copy button. She was always fascinated by the printer noise, but now she learned how to produce it. Here’s her self-portrait. She pressed the button and looked at the pretty moving light. Now I’ll have to make an anti-cat button cover, like those on most of my power strips (I make them out of duct tape and steel corners).

Gary the Cat, on the other hand likes to use the keyboard as his pillow. He knows that sooner or later he’ll be able to rest his face on my left hand.

Thinking About the Future

My father-in-law once told me about a group of young guys, all from orphanages, that he met when he served in the Soviet Army. Those kids would talk for hours and hours about retiring on the government pension. I am a little bit like that too – I like to plan my retirement.

One thing that I’ll do then is write a series of science fiction stories, probably in graphic novel format. Since it might very well be that all the things that I squirrel away in my notes might come true by the time I retire, let me share with you some of my world building.

The protagonist’s name is John van Nostrand (after a Brooklyn street name). He’s a space pilot from future Brooklyn (or alternative past). His antagonists are pilot Naru Nan, underhero Jackson, supervisor Coder Jones and inspector Rublev. I haven’t worked out the characters much yet.

Some notes about the future/alternative past. A series of technological breakthroughs accomplished the following:

Sleep is not necessary anymore. Thanks to a wonder drug or a surgical implant of some sort people no longer have to spend 8 hours sleeping. Sleep becomes optional, and a sort of entertainment, as an REM inducing machine can produce vivid and even lucid dreams on demand.

Total domination of bacteria and viruses through biotechnological means (no nanotech though). This in turn leads to a revolution in cooking (among other things). It becomes perfectly safe to eat all foods raw. Cooking a steak, for instance becomes mechanized. Lasers sear the outside, while inside can stay pretty raw. Overall, a specialized food computers are used. They can laser-sear, microwave, dry out, mince, liquefy and wrap in special membranes and capsules and produce all sorts of futuristic foods. Many techniques involve “jet printing” ingredients.

Bathing is now optional, a sort of relaxation as well. A special membranous symbiont is genetically engineered to live inside people’s skins and consumes sweat and toxins.

Buildings are built by the jet printing method with titanium-containing alloy for strength, as well as slew of ceramic and other materials for insulation and decoration. Ridiculously tall and strong skyscrapers result.

Huge space cities are built out of towed metallic asteroids, again through jet printing. Real estate on Earth and in space is spectacular.

I still have many things to decide upon, such as the mode of space travel, politics, and a million other things. There will be no aliens or interstellar travel though. I’m pretty sure about that.

Blimp Blamp

Fujifilm blimp moored over at Floyd Bennett Field.

A few notes:
* As it turns out the word “blimp” comes from the sound that occurs when one flicks the skin of a balloon.
* Poor Fujifilm branders. To most people “Fujifilm” means “film”, not “digital.” It’s kind of like branding with the slogan “Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH means safe transatlantic flights.” That’s not what people remember, is it?
* Actually, Fujifilm makes absolutely awesome laser exposure printers for digital photos. They basically use lasers to expose regular photo paper, resulting in a digital print that has all the characteristics of a regular print. Unfortunately most digital photo printing services don’t let you know what kind of printing equipment they use or at what resolution they print.


Ad:

Amdahl : Business in the Front, Party in the Back

A few years ago I purchased a strange piece of computing history on eBay. Some guy in Canada was selling what he described as a “model” of an Amdahl processor. He did not include a picture with his listing, and because of that I was able to snap it up for about 30 wing-wangs.

When the package arrived, it turned out to be a real 42 (!) processor board from an old Amdahl mainframe that was “presented to T. Eaton Company for its purchase of Amdahl 5995-3550M processor in June 1992” as the plaque said. T. Eaton Company no longer exists, it was swallowed by Sears. Neither does Amdahl – it is a part of Fujitsu now.

The little cooling towers made it possible to air cool the chips.

The back of the board was very strange though. All the wiring seemed to be done “point-to-point” by hand. Overall, thinking about how many work-hours went into designing and making that board made me shudder.

[update] Thanks to the Boing Boing liks this seems to have become the second popular post on my site – first one being the Revelation post which gained popularity thanks to being the only google result for “omnioum finis imminet” for a while. I’ve got some great information from former Amdahl employees:

Tom: “
The item is an MCC (multi-chip carrier) from an Amdahl V8, V7 or V6. Many were plugged into either side of a large frame which connected the MCCs to each other and to power, the console, memory, and the IO cables.

The finned gizmos are cooling towers glued to the top of the individual chips. A plastic cover directed cool air over the towers and fans exhausted it out the top of the frame
hese were used in the 470 series computers. The follow on computer, the 580 used much larger boards about the size of a pizza box. They were inserted into a plenum (which became known as the pizza oven) with ZIF connectors on the side. They had black instead of gold cooling towers with more fins.

The board is circa 1980. The back wiring was done in Japan because they couldn’t find enough people in the US who could do it well. I believe the chips were laser bonded on the front with the hand wiring on the back. Note that the circut boards were multi-layer and the back wiring was only used where they couldn’t get enough paths from the circut boards and for engineering changes after production.

NoOneAtAll : “Amdahl used to give out dead hardware and out-of-date engineering samples to their sales guys made into lots of different things. I’ve seen coasters made out of unusable processors, an Amdahl sales binder made from a set of bad carrier boards, a couple of plaques like this one made from DOA MCC modules, pen holders made out of ribbon cable, etc.

An IBM reseller I worked at spent Amdahl’s entire corporate lifetime telling them no. By the time the sales guy gave up, pretty much everyone at the company had been hit up by the guy as a possible lead, and pound for pound there was more dead Amdahl hardware repackaged as kitsch on the desks in sales than we had actually moved in Amdahl equipment. “

[update] Two similar processors just came up on eBay. The picture quality is ghastly, but they seem like a bigger version of the one that I have, with even more complicated back wiring.

P.S. Don’t forget to take a look at the rest of my blog, or if you are interested in Amdahl, at the rest of my Amdahl-related posts.

Exoskeleton Troubles or Crown of Despair.

I’ve finally stopped biting my nails (and I’ll write a detailed howto article about that in a little while). But as soon as I fixed that, I broke my one an only fake tooth.

You see, one of my childhood friends was chasing me (with the intention of beating me up for something or other), and caused me to trip. I chipped my front tooth. When I was already in the US, my former half-assed dentist talked me into killing off that tooth and turning it into a crown. The result of his work was pretty sucky — the crown came out in a year or so. But by then I had a really, really good dentist replace it. And that lasted my a good while.

But a few days ago I carelessly bit into a piece of chicken. There was a loud crunch and…..

Luckily my other childhood friend is a second year dental resident (yes, dentists have an option to go into residence, although it’s not required). I could not get a dental appointment with my regular dentist until the 18th, but my friend took that x-ray the same day.

In any case, I’ll need an implant (or a bridge, which I don’t want to do). For a couple of months I’ll have to wear a temporary replacement called a “flipper”. I know, har-har, flipper.

But at least the implant is cool. An implant is basically a titanium screw that goes directly into the bone. It’s installed by either a dental surgeon or a specialist.

Woohoo! Titanium! I’ll see if I can get a laser cannon, cell phone or a supercomputer mounted in there. We have the technology, right?