SuperCraftsmen I: Abrasha

I decided to do a little series about amazing craftsmen I’ve learned about on the Internet.

I think of myself as a of a tradesman. I work right next to the jewelry district, but my work is less refined. I’m more of a plumber. A very neat and sometimes even artistic plumber, but a plumber nevetheless. Web develpment is like that. Web developers sometimes fancy themselves architects and artists, but almost never are. We are all engineers and craftsmen though, and as such can appreciate work of other craftsmen.

Once, looking for a titanium menorah, of all things, I found a website of Abrasha. Even though he does not list his prices, I clearly can’t afford his work. I’ll have to fashion my own titanium menorah, out of titanium tubing, like a jedi knight building his(or her) lightsabre.

While I was browsing about, I watched an amazing video that he has on the website. In it, he says:

“People call me a jeweler, I don’t. I call myself a goldsmith. To me a jeweler is a merchant, a person who buys and sells jewelry. I don’t. I design and make jewelry as it was done hundreds of years ago. I feel myself almost like a modern day fetish maker or a shaman, people come to me personally and get my work for other reasons than they get work at Tiffany’s or Macy’s or through a catalog. There’s a quality of my work that speaks to people.”

Boy, is he right. His work speaks, and it speaks directly to me. There are just so many things that are resonating with me: he is working on a series of 100 pins, just like I work on my 100 Views of the Empire State Building. He uses titanium and other unobtanium, which is a minor obsession of mine. He is inspired by Japanese art. He pays attention to the parts of his work that nobody will ever see, just like I always try to.

I highly suggest that you watch the video and look through the slideshow of Abrasha showing the process of making jewelry. This is pure engineering erotica. In particular, the slideshow for making the Pachinko Ball Bracelet is amazingly clever. I especially liked the part closer to the end where he makes the gold rivets line up. The gold rivets are my favorite feature of his work – I love elements of construction that are both structural and decorative at the same time.

The Naked Barrista

I haven’t written about one of my very expensive but ultimately rewarding hobbies for a while, so I will try to correct this. You see, I like espresso and espresso based drinks. One of these days I’ll write a long post about everything that I ever learned about making them, but for now, here’s a short progress report.

There are hundreds of cooking shows these days. Even the British, famous for their indigestible cuisine, field two awesome shows: The Naked Chef and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. All of a sudden, London is referred to “City of Chefs.” In any case, I am sure that both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay prepare very tasty meals in their restaurants. But I am also pretty sure that if you order an espresso or a cappuccino there, you’ll get the undrinkable crud. Jamie Oliver, for instance has a FrancisFrancis! – a beautifully designed, but highly mediocre espresso machine in his home kitchen. Would one show about coffee and coffee training for celebrity chefs and their restaurant staff be too much to ask for?

As my financial means increased, I’ve progressed through a series of espresso machines. For a year or so I’ve been a proud owner of a Reneka Techno. It’s a common choice amongst espresso enthusiasts who always wanted a La Marzocco machine, but finally gave up, as new ones cost too much (around 6K) and used ones are hard to come by and troublesome. The scarcity of used La Marzocco machines is a mystery to me – Starbucks replaced almost all machines that it used to own with superautomatics of unknown to me make, reportedly forcing the closure of the US La Marzocco factory. Where did they all go?

Anyway, strange as it is, but a French company, not an Italian one is making a machine that mostly replicates a La Marzocco for home users. So, what separates this machine from hundreds of competing espresso makers?

Well, for starters it uses a rotary pump instead of the most common vibratory one. Rotary pumps give a steady pressure, unlike vibratory ones that provide the same pressure in a series of very rapid pulses. This is similar to analogue vs. digital sound, and just slightly less controversial, as the results are easier to compare. For the record, I like analog sound better too.

The second highly desirable feature is the separate high powered steam/water boilers. Add to that a digital temperature control circuit tunable to 1F and you got yourself a great machine. With this little bit of digital trickery you get in-boiler temperature stability that the bigger machines get through great size and painstaking adjustment. The temperature stability at the group (the coffee holder) is another question altogether, but it’s not bad there too.

Of course, to get all that you have to suffer some difficulties – like having a 220V outlet installed. This is not too difficult – you just need to have access to two 120V lines on a different phase and have your electrician put in a special circuit breaker. You also need a direct water connection, as rotary pump machines don’t have water tanks and need to take in water at water line pressure. This is not too difficult as well – you need to have your plumber to lead a flexible copper water line from the sink. If you install the machine near the sink, you can also tie the coffee machine’s drain into the sink drain. I am not as lucky – my machine drains into a big vase.

Here is my Reneka Techno with the side cover removed. You can see the pump as well as the badly placed pressure gauge. Pressure is adjustable, mine is set at about Schomer-recommended 8.5 bar.

A new trend in espresso shot-pulling is the so-called naked portafilters. Techno came with an extra portafilter, which I had modified at for only $25. The idea is that you get to see the cream formation and flow of espresso though the filter bottom, noting the evenness of extraction. Also, crema touches fewer surfaces, ending up mostly in the cup.

I’ve ordered some coffee from Victorola, this is a shot of their Streamline Espresso. The crema looks a little light, but espresso did not taste sour at all. Is that the mysterious “tiger flecking“? I don’t know. In any case, this was a trial shot, I’ll keep playing with my new toy and new coffees from Victorola.

I am sad to announce my continuing suckage at the fine craft of latte art. Look and laugh at this misshapen rosetta. Ewww. Well, practice makes perfect.

Serious espresso making requires serious reading. David Shomer’s book is a classic that must be read by every aspiring barrista. Espresso Coffee : The Science of Quality by Rinantonio Viani, Andrea Illy (yes, that Illy) is a sophisticated scientific and scholarly work about espresso. It’s expensive at seventy something dollars. But when you spend that much on coffee machines, coffee accessories and coffee, what’s 70-80 bucks more for a good book?

The Fug

I think of my life as one long developing and debugging session. I try to improve my software and hardware, fight bloat, load more data in my databases, find new algorithms for doing things. And of course my life is full of little bugs, inefficiencies, crashes and weird behavior. Instead of making coding my way of life I try to make my way of life be more like coding.

There are three classics of the genre of the heroic computer geek saga. First there’s Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul Of a New Machine“. Second is Douglas Coupland’s “Microserfs“. Third is G. Pascal Zachary’s Show-Stopper!. Pascal’s first name which he hides behind the initial “G” is Gregg. Yep, Gregg.

Now I would like to add another book to the list. It’s Ellen Ullman’s “The Bug“.

To describe what these books are about I need to borrow a name of Cordwainer Smith’s short story – The Burning of the Brain. Or Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Those are the things that come to mind when I think about the heroes of these books.

Also comes to mind the episode of NYPD Blue where a doctor tells detective Simone that there is a possibility that the LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device) balloon pump might start “chewing up” his body. A poor choice of a metaphor in that case, but a very good one to describe what happens to the bodies and minds of the heroes of these books, be they real life superhuman engineers like Dave Cutler and Steve Wallach or more human but fictional protagonists of “Microserfs” and “The Bug”.

“The Bug” has three main characters. A tester on her way of breaking out from the cocoon of useless liberal arts degree holder and becoming a QA engineer not only in title but in life; a miserable antisocial software engineer in a fight of his life; and a software bug called The Jester.

At work I use Joel Spolsky’s most excellent bug tracking application called FogBugz. My project manager started calling especially nasty bugs “fugs”. Well, The Jester is a “fug” to the power of 10. To get the feeling of vertigo, the sense of spiraling into an abyss that “The Bug” invokes, i suggest listening to a piece titled “Spiral” on John Coltraine’s famous “Giant Steps”.

And here’s my favorite quote from the book:
“Look, Levin. Programming starts out like it’s going to be architecture–all black lines on white paper, theoretical and abstract and spatial and up-in-the-head. Then, right around the time you have to get something fucking working, it has this nasty tendency to turn into plumbing.
“No, no. Lemme think,” Harry interrupted himself. “It’s more like you’re hired as a plumber to work in an old house full of ancient, leaky pipes laid out by some long-gone plumbers who were even weirder than you are. Most of the time you spend scratching your head and thinking: Why the fuck did they do that?”
“Why the fuck did they?” Ethan said.
Which appeared to amuse Harry to no end. “Oh, you know,” he went on, laughing hoarsely, “they didn’t understand whatever the fuck had come before them, and they just had to get something working in some ridiculous time. Hey, software is just a shitload of pipe fitting you do to get something the hell working. Me,” he said, holding up his chewed, nail-torn hands as if for evidence, “I’m just a plumber.” “