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  • Michael Krakovskiy 7:17 pm on June 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , blade technology, , Chiharu Sugai, , , , , , , , , Knife sharpening, , , metal, Pencil sharpener, producer, Sakai City, , sharpening specialist, Sharpening stone, Shotaro Nomura, , , , ultimate tool, , ,   

    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

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 8:09 pm on September 14, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: actual product, , , Artemy Lebedev, brilliant designer, , , , , electronic devices, electronic products, , Frog Design, golf driver, golf driver head, , , immaterial products, input device, , Latvia, , , metal, , , , , Mouse Driver, non-skid rubber, , , Optimus Maximus keyboard, Optimus Mini Three, physical product, Pointing device, satellite offices, software preview, , , , , web design scene   

    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.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 7:52 am on April 15, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Art Deco building, , , Darren Aronofskiy, Dead Sea, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew language, Hides, , , Judaism, mathematician, Maximilian Cohen, metal, Mezuzah, , , , orange paint, , Scott Adams, Scroll, Sefer Torah, Sofer, , ,   

    The Torah Code 

    There’s a sequence in Darren Aronofskiy’s “Pi” when the protagonist, mathematician Maximilian Cohen is induced by a Hasidic Jew to on something called Tefillin. Here’s a frame from the movie:

    For an ancient Jewish religious artifact, the two black leather boxes and straps used in prayer, are very strange looking and science-fictiony. I decided to do a bit of research on them, and came upon a lot of very interesting stuff. I’ve made a lot of notes, but for years I did not have the time to sit down and actually write this post.

    Tefillin is a very curious Jewish religious artifact, similar to a few others, such as Sefer Torah and Mezuzah. What they have in common is the exactitude in which they reproduce holy texts in hand-written form.

    Scott Adams nicely summarized the problem of propagating holy writing in his recent post:

    I never knew that there are about a zillion different versions of the Bible because (and I am summarizing Ehrman’s entire book here) it was copied and recopied by hand, by semi-literate, opinionated morons for hundreds of years. Sometimes the copiers left stuff out, sometimes they added their own explanations where things didn’t seem to make sense, and other times they simply made errors.

    This, of course, brings to mind the old joke about a novice monk who asks his superior about the possibility of mistakes in the holy books that the monks in his monastery have been copying by hand for centuries. The head monk goes to check the originals hidden away in a vault. Having not heard from him for days, the novice monk goes to check on the old monk and finds him hunched over the old books crying and saying the same phrase over and over. “The word is ‘celebrate‘ !”

    The Hasidic Jew from “Pi” was a Torah numerologist. See, the Torah is considered to be the literal word of God as given to Moses, exact to a letter. Hebrew letters have numerical values, so Torah can be treated as a string of numbers that might contain hidden patterns, encoded messages, maybe even computer code. Exactitude is very important here – a single letter might change everything, like in a computer program or a cyphered message. Or like removing the letter “r” from the word “celebrate”.

    The practice of using Tefillin comes from a literal understanding of a passage in the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:8.

    “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

    And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.”

    What seems to be a poetic metaphor about the importance of the holy writing, is taken literally here, prompting the creation of an artifact consisting of two black leather boxes containing scrolls with passages from the Torah to be worn bound to a hand and forehead with leather straps.

    If you’ll go shopping for a set of Tefillin, you might be surprised at how much they cost. The cheapest set from a reputable place will set you back at least several hundred dollars, with better made ones costing in the thousands of dollars. Why? Because of the excruciatingly exact way they are supposed to be made.

    The leather cases and straps need to be made from Kosher parchment and to pretty exact specifications. The cheaper ones are made from glued pieces of leather, the more expensive ones are made out of single pieces of leather, either folded using what one website calls “Jewish origami” or pressure-molded by special presses. The latter are considered more kosher.

    But the cases are a small part of the value of the Tefillin. The handwritten scrolls are what’s expensive. Scribes (Sofer) who are qualified to make kosher Tefillin are few and far between, and not only because they are supposed to a God-fearing, religious Jews of high moral fibre. The letters on the scrolls are small, but have to be perfectly formed in a rather complicated font, of which there are several varieties. There can’t be a single mistake, not even in a part of a letter.

    There are certain prayers that have to be said. Letters have to be written in a precise order. They can’t touch each other, holes or edges of the parchment. Parts of the letters can’t be erased and they have to be perfectly formed. The parchment has to be properly prepared, a proper quill pen and specially formulated ink has to be used.

    These are just some basic rules that I gleaned from various websites. Apparently they rules are so complicated that even experienced scribes are sometimes baffled at subtleties of writing these scrolls. When in the middle of a laborious process of writing a scroll, they sometimes come to consult a specialist called a posek rather then throwing away their work and starting anew. Even a specialist is sometimes not sure if a letter is correctly formed. What happens then is rather interesting:

    “Shailos tinok is a query presented to a child. Occasionally a posek will be in doubt how to render a decision, psak. […] He will suggest that a child […] who knows the letters of the Aleph – Bais but has not yet learned to read, be asked. Such a child sees nothing other than the form before him and can judge without any influences.”

    There are literally thousands of ways in which the tiniest imperfection can completely invalidate a Tefillin. And religious Jews take this commandment very seriously, so making of Tefillin is in no danger of being outsourced to China despite the high availability of good calligraphers there.

    There’s even a dispute as to in what order the scrolls need to be put into the cases. Most rabbis agree, but still, there are some who put two pair of Tefillin at once, made in two different ways. Kind of like Ned Flanders who “kept kosher just to be on the safe side”.

    On the cynical side, there’s a phenomenon referred to as “Tefillin date”. Some hypocritical Jews take their Tefillin with them when they go on a date, planning to spend the night, and while breaking the pretty clear “no sleeping around” rule, not breaking “pray with Tefillin in the morning” rule.

    Sefer Torah is a full length Torah (about 300,000 letters) written on a scroll in to specifications that are similar to the making of Tefillin. While writing Tefillin scrolls might take experienced scribe 2-3 days, Sefer Torah is often a lifetime project. Their cost ranges from tens of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars.

    This exacting standard of copying is what made the modern Torah scrolls match almost exactly the texts dating back to before 100 BC found in the Dead Sea scrolls.

    If you ever lived in New York City, you must have seen a mezuzah, the third and simplest of the Torah scroll artifacts. It comes from a literal understanding of Deuteronomy 6:9

    “And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.”

    Mezuzah takes a form of a decorated case containing a scroll nailed to a doorpost. On almost every floor of almost every apartment building in New York you’ll find at least one door with a mezuzah. In some, like in mine, almost every door has one. The variety of the decorative cases is astounding. There are big ones, small ones, ornate ones, simple ones. They are made of plastic, wood, metal. Most are left by tenants of long ago. Many are painted over. In many cases I see voids in paint where mezuzah used to be.

    The one left to me seems somewhat old, probably left by the original owners of the apartment. On the back it has the original orange paint which is not out of character for my Art Deco building. I bet it dates to the 50s or 60s (can’t be much older than that because it’s “Made in Israel”).

    What makes it absolutely invalid, of course, is the lack of the handwritten scroll inside. In fact, this is the case with most mezuzot you’ll find in New York. The case might be pretty, but the scroll inside takes at least a few hours of scribe’s work and costs from 30 to 100 dollars.

    Even though I am not an observant Jew, one of these days I’ll replace my mezuzah case with a titanium one and buy a real scroll. Also, I want to put on a Tefillin once. All I have to do is find the nearest mitzvah tank, but Hasidim make me feel uneasy.

     
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