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

The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever

The time when “fashion” was defined by French designers whose clothes could be afforded only by elite has ended. Now designers take their cues from mainstream consumers and creativity is channeled more into mass-marketing clothes than into designing them. Indeed, one need look no further than the Gap to see proof of this. In The End of Fashion, Wall Street Journal, reporter Teri Agins astutely explores this seminal change, laying bare all aspects of the fashion industry from manufacturing, retailing, anmd licensing to image making and financing. Here as well are fascinating insider vignettes that show Donna Karan fighting with financiers,the rivalry between Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, and the commitment to haute conture that sent Isaac Mizrahi’s business spiraling.

Boooo, HBO. Yay, Netflix

My TIVO has fallen on hard times. It seems that the network executives cancel shows faster than I find new ones to watch. The ones they don’t cancel, become bad. Let’s have a moment of silence for the dearly departed…

Futurama, Firefly, The $treet, Invader Zim, Deadwood, Carnivale, The Restaurant, Six Feet Under, The Job, Insomniac With Dave Attell, Samurai Jack, Sex and the City, NYPD Blue, Friends, That ’70s Show

SEO for CTOs and CEOs
Note to those working hard on search engine optimization. How did IMDB get me to give them so many valuable links? Why does it have a pagerank of 9? Why didn’t I use some certain other TV and movie review site? Simple. IMDB does not change URLs every couple of years, the search is simple and fast.

Well, in fact most of the shows that were on my old TIVO list. In particular, HBO has been especially keen on destroying my viewing list. Granted, some of the shows like NYPD Blue and Friends have lived longer than they should have, but on HBO Deadwood and Carnivale have been cut down in their prime, most annoyingly, not even ending cleanly.

In light of this, and to protest the cancelling Deadwood and Carnivale, I cancelled my HBO subscription and got a Netflix subscription instead. I still like Rome and The Sopranos, but I can wait until they are out on dvd. So HBO, I have only one thing to say to you. Booooooooooooooooooooooo. Boo. Well, OK, that was two things.

Compared to $12 a month for HBO, Netflix is a bargain at $9.99. The only problem is that I don’t like the DVD player’s interface – I have to wait for the menus to load, skip the previews. Fast forward and back is not as smooth as in TIVO and there’s no way to watch some other disk, and then come back to where I stopped watching another. I think I need something like Kaleidescape, except cheap and with storage for only a couple of DVDs at the time. Or maybe just a well-designed dvd player.

Sadly, Netflix does not have a particularly impressive inventory. Peerflix has a much better one, and is also a good way for me to get rid of the dvds that I don’t need anymore and get some obscure stuff that I do need.

All’s not too bad in TV Land overall though. I am frustrated with DirecTV TIVO not having networking and online scheduling and for that reason I am not upgrading to HD DirecTV TIVO. Tivo Series 3 does not work with DirecTV and is outrageously expensive. Well, at least there are some new shows that I like.

At the top of the pile is How It’s Made. It’s a Canadian show that mostly takes you inside factories and shows you amazing manufacturing and automation techniques. There’s a number of similar shows around, but they are all suffering from the same problem: TV personalities. It’s annoying to see idiotically grinning morons making bad jokes and drawing attention to themselves rather than to what the show is about.

For instance, Dirty Jobs is not really about messy, smelly, funny and horrible jobs. It’s about messy, smelly unfunny and horrible host, Mike Rowe. The last segment of Dave Attell of Insomniac with Dave Attell often had a segment similar to Dirty Jobs, but Attel, unlike Rowe is both charismatic and funny. Well, at least I think so.

Overall I feel that in a show about working a host is not very important. Take This Old House, for instance. It’s really about Tommy, Norm, and the lesser subcontractors such as Richard and Roger. But you can take one host with another and then with another without the show suffering. I, for one, find the last host least annoying.

Anyway, what’s different about How It’s Made is that it does not have a host, only an invisible narrator. The show walks you through various industrial manufacturing processes accompanied by the Wakka Chikka Wakka Chikka-like music and almost hypnotic narration. It’s pure engineering porn. It seems like youtube has pulled down most of How It’s Made clips, but there’s still one on google video.

Now I can’t look at any mass-produced item without trying to picture the assembly line that created it. Some of the machines that I’ve seen are still haunting my mind–the ingenuity with which they are made are just amazing. I wish the show would interview the engineers who made the machines and spent more time on some of the more complicated ones.

What’s On Yer Keychain

Stuff that I carry on my keychain, left to right:
1) Bottle opener. I don’t drink much beer, but a lot of tasty diet drinks sold in NYC bodegas come in non-snap-off cup glass bottles.
2) Red Photon Light 3 from Thinkgeek. It came really handy during the NYC Blackout of 2003. (See my photos here and here. If you know somebody who can use those for a newspaper or a magazine article, please let me know.)
3) A 20x 5 element jeweler’s loupe that I bought in a store on 47th street. I don’t get that much use out of it, but it’s petty cool.
4) A Husky brand 4 way pocket screwdriver.
5) A Levenger single sheet cutter. This is one of the most useful little gadgets eve. A tiny ceramic shard on the end of the plastic holder cuts through a single sheet of newspaper. Awesome for clipping newspaper articles, taking out chunks of notes and trimming paper. With a bit more pressure it works on slightly thicker paper, like that in Moleskine notebooks. Also good for taking off cellophane from CDs and trimming gift paper. It’s next to impossible to cut yourself with one. The only gripe is had to notch up the case to make it easy to take the cutter out of it.
6) A Fisher Space Pen epoxied to a little ring. This way I always have a pen to take down notes.

Single sheet cutter in action from Levenger’s website:

WML : Screw You, Computer Hardware Manufacturers!

Continuing with the screw theme, let me share with you another piece of fastener lore that I’ve learned over the year. As any person who ever cut her hands on ragged edges of cheaply made computer cases knows, when you buy a filthy overpriced little baggy of computer screws there’s a weird and confusing variety inside.

Here are the most common, left to right: chassi screw, cd-rom screw, floppy screw and hard disk screw. Now here’s the confusing part – The hex headed chassi screw is a bit bigger than the very similar cd rom screw. But the soft metal of computer components makes it possible to use it to fasten everything – floppy drives, cd roms, hard disks. It is the most useful screw of the four. I get the feeling that the hard drive screw is just a tad bigger, which makes it almost as useful, but it will get stuck if you try to attach a floppy drive with it. The cd rom screw and the floppy screws are next to useless – without knowing the proper type of screw to use, most people already embiggened the holes with chassis screws, and the little cd rom screws end up pretending to go in, but then falling out. They end up filling up all the useful space in the little box where I store my accumulation of computer screws.

Since I mostly buy cases with motherboards already mounted in them, I am not going to delve into the whole plastic vs. metal motherboard standoffs. I’ll just mention that the metal ones sometimes cause shorts by themselves, and plastic ones are sometimes not strong enough to prevent shorts from flexing. There, I said it. Now I’ll merrily continue my screw rant.

But at least the computer screw weirdness makes peoples life harder not on purpose. But some fancy pants computer (cough Hpaq cough) and consumer device (cough TIVO cough) manufacturers use torx screws and tamper proof torx screws. For that exact reason I own a whole bunch of torx screwdrivers. That is a bit sneaky.

But not as sneaky as the hardcore tamper proof screws made by Tamperproof Screw Company of New York:

Snake Eyes®, which I see a lot in elevator button panels, Tri-Wing® that I hear is used in GameboyTM devices, OpsitTM, which is which is built to make mockery of the holy mantra of “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” – it tightens conterclockwise (just like MTA lightbulbs). Тhere are other weird things like philips or torx screws with a pin in the middle and one way screws.

Also there seem to be a whole bunch of Pozidriv screws around. I think that the last cam out fiasco that I had was caused by me trying to use a Pozidriv bit on a Philips screw or the other way around. It’s very hard to tell them apart. Luckily I had screw drill out set similar to this one. It works ok on easy cases, but for every screw that I remove with it there seem to be a couple where I end up just completely breaking down the head of the screw leaving the rest under surface.

Wow, it looks like Philips screw company has special aerospace screws, like this wicked looking ACR Torq-Set. I would be way cool to get a box of those.

This is just like one of my favorite Russian sayings – “Ð?а каждую хитрую жопу еÑ?Ñ‚ÑŒ хуй Ñ? винтом. Ð?а каждый хуй Ñ? винтом найдётÑ?Ñ? жопа Ñ? лабиринтом”.

WML : Fasteners Are Engineer’s Best Friend

While we are on the subject of screws, here’s another thing that I learned about fasteners. As any know-it-all who pays attention to things like that I looked up why screws with what we called cross-shaped screws in the USSR are called Philips screws in the US (I wonder what they call them in other countries) are called so. Of course the answer was one web search away in the Straight Dope Classic Why did this guy Phillips think we needed a new type of screw?

I also purchased One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw used at Amazon. I learned that the screw and the screwdriver is a rather recent invention, interestigly enough one of the very few tools not known to the ancient Chinese.

Useless trivia aside, I hate both slotted and Phillips screws. Of course I would not even think of using slotted screws for anything other than period-correct Craftsman style or Art Deco hardware such as cabinet pulls or outlet covers. But the common Phillips screws, with their falling off from the bit (even the magnetic one) and stripping (not the good bachelor party kind) drive me absolutely nuts.

The solution? I bought a couple of boxes of hybrid Phillips/square screws from Rockler. You can use the regular Philips driver, or you can use a special square one. The benefit of a square bit is that the screw does not fall of the bit and does not strip easily. The kit also includes a bottle of suggestively named Rockler Screw-Lube. The paper box is rather sucky and unusable – the partitions lift up and the screws mix.

WML : Mr. Squeek No More

Here’s yet another edition of WML – What Michael Learned. And the subject of today’s post is one of the things that I hate as much as I love hardwood parquet floors – squeaks. In SAT-speak I am somewhat corpulent and nocturnal. And a sonorous squeak of a parquet floor in the dead of the night is not one of my favorite sounds. I am certainly not one of those people who think that squeakiness adds character to an old floor.

A few years ago I searched for a way to repair squeaky floors and kept finding advice for those who could access the floor from below – in cases of houses with basements that expose the underside of the upper floors. Then recently I found a solution in an episode of Ask This Old House that works for me. It is marketed as “Squeeeeek No More“. That’s right – 5 e’s. Luckily Google suggests the “correct” spelling even if you use less e’s.

I bought my kit over here. It came with 50 snap-off screws, a square driver bit, a special stud finder screw (he heh) and a depth control/snap-off tool that looks like a Klingon weapon or instrument of torture.

Here’s how it works :

First of all you shoo away the cat (7). Then you need to find a parquet plank that squeaks. You do that by first finding the general location of the squeek and then with your foot sideways pressing on individual planks. Usually it’s only one or two loose planks that generate the noise when they move. Each one of the planks is nailed individually and it’s the nails that make the sound . You don’t need to worry about finding a stud – just drill a few pilot holes (so that the wood won’t split). Then using the square driver bit (1) you drive the screw (2) a few turns into the pilot hole. Then you drop a depth tool (3) over the top of the screw and continue driving the screw into the floor with the driver bit. The driver bit has a fat section at the bottom which will prevent it from driving the screw further than necessary when used with the depth tool.Then you use a T-shaped hole in the depth tool to gently break off the head of the screw (2a) by rocking it side to side. The screw will break off under the surface of the wood leaving a small hole (5) and (6) in the floor that can be filled in with wood repair sticks.

I found that it takes about three to five screws per squeaky plank. The Klingon device is not really necessary for parquet floors without carpets.  The screw breaks easily with the tool, and doesn’t when you screw it in. It would be a good idea to practice on some scrap wood (which I didn’t do of course), but I’ve had no accidental snapoffs so far. It would become a problem if the screw would break off above the surface. I guess the best way to fix that would be to pound the crew in with a nail set (which is not an easy matter for sure).  If you do not predrill the hole a split in the plank would not be an easy fix as well. On the plus side, the holes are not very visible even unfilled. I guess the best time to do this fix would be right before floor refinishing.

There is a cheaper version of the kit marketed as “Countersnap“, which seems to be exactly the same thing, except the depth/snap-off tool that comes with it can’t be used on carpets. Actually I think that’s the one I’ve seen Tommy use on Ask TOH.

Of course this system will not work for people with radiant floor heating, pipes and electric wires that run under the floor, super expensive museum quality floors with highly polished astronomical mirror grade finishes and landlords who do not allow driving screws into the wooden floors no matter how squeaky you or the floor gets.

Oh, right. 50 deadprogrammerTM points to the reader who can tell me the sci-fi author who inspired the title.