Startups and Other Problems

I cringe a little bit when I hear the word “startup”. This word has several different meanings in modern newspeak. In Silicon Alley (this is what New York’s startup scene was called in 2000) it appears in several typical phrases such as: “well, we can’t afford that – we are a startup” and “we are a startup, but we are very well funded”. This word is basically used either as an excuse for wanting below-market labour or an excuse to flaunt investor-supplied riches. In the first phrase it means that the company has been burning dumb money for at least a few years, in the second – it’s just starting. One “startup” that I worked for (and have fond memories of) began in 1997 and gave up ghost in 2012. UGO was truly the Dick Clark of companies (except not as successful).

Recently I was researching an engineer who designed the Wright 2600 keypunch. An article about him on Tripod (another blast from the past) has a very interesting quote: “After retiring from US Gov., he volunteered for SCORE, the retired executives helping businesses with start up and other problems.” Startup is not a type of a business! It’s a problem that businesses have!

The term “serial entrepreneur” has also acquired a thick patina of sleaze. The thing is, entrepreneurs are not really like flying aces (I think I read somewhere that most military pilots are either aces who shoot down 5 or more planes or the ones who are shot down). No. You only need to take a look at Jerry Kaplan, who wrote “Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure” and probably set some kind of a record in running companies that don’t make it. A large percentage of startup money is made through sales to larger, lumbering companies. Was a great deal? Nobody remembers it when watching its founder wearing relaxed fit shoes. There certainly a lot of money out there chasing some not very viable ideas. Unfortunately the startups of yesterday and today are either huge failures or huge successes. Or both (but not for everybody).

Luckily these days startup costs are at all time lows. To create a huge failure of a company you need a lot of money. On the other hand, to barely succeed all you need is some pocket change. Forget about Y Combinator. The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud will “barely invest” and try to help you to “barely succeed” – in other words to encourage you to build a business that realistically aims to be profitable. Forget “go big or go home”. Just try to honestly to build a business. Screw freemium. Forget about “incubators”. All you need is $37. And The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud will maybe give it to you. If you’ll get a rejection – dig deep.

Apple Store at Night

The Apple store is eerily empty at night. It’s only populated by reflections from the other side of the street.


A typical Mac user is camping out even though there is no special event tomorrow.


On the Importance of Lube

As a response to meaningless discussions about microformats, standards, widgets and other unimportant web gunk I wrote an article Deadprogrammer’s Hierarchy of Web Needs. The gist of that post is that what matters the most is text and images, and that the importance of everything else above it falls in geometric progression. Things high on the pyramid get too much consideration.

There is one modifier that does not fit on the pyramid: lubrication. You see, there’s a lot of friction associated with putting content online. It’s a major limiting factor to the growth of the internet. Those who focus on the base of the pyramid and apply enough lube succeed.

Twitter succeeded because it is the ultimate lube, the equivalent of a major dose of oil-based laxative. It lets you put little pooplets of thought at the speed of diarrhea. Text alone is enough – it’s the very base of the pyramid. Because of that people forgive Twitter the url shortening pandemic – the very thing that is poisoning the exchange of links, the terrible handling of images, and the procrustean shortening of the information that you can share.

My ideal twitter feed is kind of like now defunct, but with inline images. I want good copy, I want good images and I want good links (and not the terrible shortened crap – this is not what hypertext is about).

Besides lube, there is stuff that seems like a good idea, but is actually adding friction. The days of black backgrounds and blinking text are behind us, but the new enemies of eyeballs are more subtle. Hashmarks in Twitter are terrible. I can’t read shit like “ugh, bad #weather in #hoboken #today #firstworldproblems”. Another thing that acts as sand in my eyes is “winerlinks“. They are little hashmarks that let you link to every paragraph in the story (which is a great idea), but at the same time they look like a bunch of bedbugs and scrape your eye with every saccade.

The year is 2011 and we are walking with supercomputers attached to digital cameras more powerful than the ones that went into space probes. Yet sharing an image is still a huge pain in the ass. It just takes too many steps. Iphone apps do it relatively well, even if too many people mangle their perfectly good pictures with a totally un-fun “a fun & quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures” (whatever that means).

Here’s Vannevar Bush talking about “memex trails” in “As We May Think“:

“The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.”

Stinging together these trails is still too cumbersome. Have you ever tried to post a picture of two items (what JWZ calls “ exhibit A, exibit B” (this particular link leads to a collection that is totally worth your time)? What if there are no pictures of these items on the internet and you have to scan or photograph it, upload it, crop it, post it? And what if like Vannevar Bush’s bow and arrow researcher you’d like to add a comment in longhand, your own handwriting. Or how about a little hand-drawn diagram? This simple task will likely take at least half an hour.

But enough bellyaching. It’s 2011, and the flying cars are almost here. There’s Skitch and Evernote (Phil Libin seems to be making the dream of Memex a reality in a less lame way than anyone else). And as an alternative to Twitter there is Google+ – I can drag an image from Skitch into a text area and it automatically uploads! When they’ll open up the API doing A/B posts will become finally possible there. Please, please leave the suffocating, hashtag strewn stinkhole that Twitter became. Join Google+. I’ll be hanging out there.

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


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

Hamon or the Skin Deep Beauty of Code

The craft of programming is a little depressing: you spend days and nights pushing bits inside a computer, weaving a pattern that will ignite the right pixels on monitors or magnetize the right atoms on disk platters. But it is craft nevertheless, except one where beauty matters very little. Coders create the true ukio-e – floating world, but one that is as ugly as it is fleeting.

I’ve read a good chunk of Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think, but I’m still far from understanding what beauty is in code. Ugliness is self-explanatory: if you recoil in horror after reading a few files, it’s ugly. I recoil on the daily basis.

I’m not talking about the success or usefullness of things that code creates. I am pretty sure that the code that runs is as ugly as the website itself, but it does not detract from its success and utility.

I think the key to my preception of code beauty is related to “hamon”: a concept in Japanese swordmaking. If you’ll look at a Japanese sword, you’ll usually see a wavy pattern near the edge of the blade. Hamon literally means “blade pattern”. It is created when a swordsmith applies special mud to the edge of a in a wavy pattern of varying thickness and composition, and then heats the sword and plunges it into hot water. You can see the process in this video (it starts at about 1:30 mark).

The primary purpose of this treatment is to create a blade that is very hard and can take a lot of stress, which is a contradiction, as hard steel is very brittle. The edge gets the thinnest coating, and after heating and cooling turns into martensite hard crystals of high carbon steel. The thicker coated back turns into pearlite, which is a softer, but very flexible lower carbon steel. The hamon pattern is formed where these two types of steel interlock. The wavy shape makes the sword able to absorb shock better.

The absence of or inferior shape of hamon clearly indicates the inferiority of the sword. The aesthetics of it are just a coincidence, but it is also the resason why the craft of the samurai sword endures: collectors and museums purchase them as works of art. I’ve seen many swords in museums, and even though you can’t appreciate them as well as by holding them, the patterns in the hamon are hypnotic.

Here’s a good video of what hamon looks like in different ligting conditions.

There are many different styles of hamon, here are some examples from very excellent “The Craft of the Japanese Sword“:

There are of course many swords out there with fake blade patterns made with acid etch, wire brushing or other abrasives. Fakes are neither beautiful nor strong and easily identifiable.

When I look at a code listing I also see a wavy pattern. It’s nowhere near as connected to quality as the hamon, but it is still often an indicator of it. Indentation, spacing, length of keywords and function names, the amount of syntactic sugar, overall length of the listing: good code is sometimes beatiful to look at.

Sublime Text 2, a new programming editor that I am using, has an interesting feature: an insert that shows the whole file in miniature. Here are side by side beginnings of commit.c from (top to bottom) cvs, svn and git. I don’t know if anything can be determined by looking at these pretty skyscrapers of code, but aestetically I like git better.

This goes a level further – into software architecture. There’s this old chestnut of the maps of system calls in Apache and IIS web servers. You can easily tell which is the product of Redmond craftsmanship.

I would like to add that wavy patterns are the last things that I look for in code and this whole article is just a fluffy philosophical musing. Yet, maybe there’s something there in those patterns.

Toy phones

If you think that cell phone toy that you bought your kid is cool, or remember the toy phone of your childhood, check this out – a set of toy phones out of 1927 Sears, Roebuck catalogue:

Sweet Lemon QWERTY

My daughter’s design and marketing portfolio grows.

Recently she received an unexpectedly interesting assignment at pre-k: to come up with a name for a restaurant, ant then decorate a box with pictures of food cut out of magazines inside and the name outside.

This is not a ransom note, this it the restaurant name. My wife helped her a little by writing out the name, but I think the really creative part is the name itself which Natalie chose entirely on her own: “Sweet Lemon QWERTY”.

Also noteworthy:
Natalie’s train design calls for a flat panel tv in every train car:


[3F11] Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield

Homer: [gasps] Look at these low, low prices on famous brand-name electronics!
Bart: Don’t be a sap, Dad. These are just crappy knock-offs.
Homer: Pfft. I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there’s Magnetbox and Sorny.

People often ask me why I refuse to buy Sony products. Indeed, I boycott Sony, and I am not the one to hold a grudge against evil multinational corporations. The level of incompetence on the high levels of Sony’s management disgusts me.

I used to be inspired by the story of Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita starting a company in bombed Tokyo, and growing it from a radio repair shop into a giant corporation. I loved my Walkman, and thoroughly enjoyed the Playstation. I used to buy Sony Trinitron monitors which were brighter and sharper than the competition, but had visible horisontal lines formed by support wires made out of tungsten.

Over they years I felt that the quality of Sony products declined, while the company stopped to innovate and instead began to rely on brute force. They mostly missed the MP3 revolution. Instead they started to figh format wars.

The MiniDisk, the Memory Stick, Blu Ray: Sony would stop at nothing to control the format. They won with the CD and Blu Ray, lost with Betamax and just about everything else. None of these formats made me want to buy Sony products, and I’m very grateful that I don’t have to.

Sony would not stop at what’s legal – they even resorted to hacking their users’ computers – some Sony CDs installed rootkits on Windows machines in the name of copy protection! This is equivalent to breaking into your apartment just to make sure that you haven’t stole anything.

Normaly Hanlon’s Law is in effect, but I highly doubdt that things like these are benign byproducts of Sony being a large corporation. It seems like lawyers are doing a lot of thinking at Sony, and they aren’t thinking about winning people over.

Instead of trying to make their technology cooler, Sony through its lawyers started sending cease and desist letters to people who did things like making handmade iPod cases or toy racing cars out of outmoded Walkmen (I can’t find the original article mentioning the lawsuit about the racecars, but I remember reading it).

Then came the last drop. My wife runs a website about pipe organ event that she coded herself. She included an Amazon store that randomly showed different music-related items – it was a proprietory piece of software over which she had a rather limited control.

Sony employs a company called Net Enforcer that sends out DMCA takedown notices whenever they think they see any unauthorized “retailers” selling Sony products. My wife’s store’s algorithm used to include some Sony products sold by Amazon. Rather than dealing with the offending items, Dreamhost simply took down the whole store and notified me.

NetEnforcers would have you believe that they are protecting Sony’s brand, not letting various riffraff sell Sony products. I had to spend a good deal of time trying to figure out how to fix my wife’s store and not include any Sony products. As a result I refuse to buy any Sony brand electronics. I’m pretty sure this is not what Akio Morita would approve of.

A couple of my friends created a new url shortener. Wait, stop booing. There’s a twist – it has the coolest url ever – And you can win something or other by just using it. And you get statistics. Well, I guess it’s about it. Did I mention these are my friends that are doing that?

Why should you care how short your url is? Well, it’s basically because the retards at Twitter don’t allow for inline urls (if they will one day, url shorteners would die like they deserve to), and if you want your stuff retweeted, you need to leave a couple of characters for RT and the username. Of course url shorteners are evil in general, and people at Twitter are incompetent technologically, but very lucky. And being lucky is more important than being competent.

The funny thing is, I absolutely legitemately won their first $5 Amazon gift certificate.

The Capacitor Plague

I woke up from a nap to a loud pop and a smell of burning plastic. The source turned out to be one of the most precious and important to me digital devices: a ReadyNAS NV+, a small silver box with over a terabyte of hard drives that store my backups, music, and photos.

Network attached storage (NAS) is an engineering compromise. It’s a storage solution that lets you keep a bunch of drives in a self-contained device. It’s redundant: you can lose a drive (which is a statistical certainty) and not lose your data. There are also handy usb ports that let you connect usb drives and a button to run backup jobs onto these drives. It also serves as a print server, and in theory it can be used as a streaming media server. On the other hand it’s slow (gigabit networks are not fast enough when you need gigs of data fast), a complete nightmare to use with photo managers like Picasa, and an even worse nightmare if you want to use it as a Time Capsule.

I’ve spent a lot of time babysitting my ReadyNAS NV+: changing the defective RAM that it shipped with, updating the buggy firmware, finding the right drives for it (some don’t have the right temperature sensors). Don’t get me started on what it took to make it work with Mac’s Time Machine.

And after all that, the one box that was supposed to keep my precious digital archives safe was smoking. This was preceeded by a few days of weird performance issues and a couple of hangs. The power supply finally died a horrible death, and I realized that once again I was falling victim (or “mugu” as Nigerians say) to faulty capacitors.

According to Wikipedia, the name of this phenomenon is “Capacitor Plague“. There is an epidemic of failure in electrolytic capacitors from certain shady manufacturers. Electrolytic capacitors are usually found in power supplies. They are little aluminum cylinders filled with special film and electrolytic liquid or gel. Power supplies get very hot, and the liquid part of the capacitors, the electrolyte, always wants to either dry up or explode. The formula for the electrolyte is very hard to get right.

The rumor is that one or a few companies resorted to industrial espionage to steal electrolyte formulations. They weren’t entirely successful – they either got an incomplete formula or just plain Brawndo.

Spectrum Online did some digging:

“According to the source, a scientist stole the formula for an electrolyte from his employer in Japan and began using it himself at the Chinese branch of a Taiwanese electrolyte manufacturer. He or his colleagues then sold the formula to an electrolyte maker in Taiwan, which began producing it for Taiwanese and possibly other capacitor firms. Unfortunately, the formula as sold was incomplete.
“It didn’t have the right additives,” says Dennis Zogbi, publisher of Passive Component Industry magazine (Cary, N.C.), which broke the story last fall. According to Zogbi’s sources, the capacitors made from the formula become unstable when charged, generating hydrogen gas, bursting, and letting the electrolyte leak onto the circuit board. Zogbi cites tests by Japanese manufacturers that indicate the capacitor’s lifetimes are half or less of the 4000 hours of continuous ripple current they are rated for.”

Wastefulness of today’s society masks the problem: most people don’t perform autopsies on their dead $70 DVD players or $500 computers, they just use that as an excuse to buy the new hottness. The techies with (or without) spare time and soldering skills do the following: fill bulleten boards with tales of saving their devices by soldering in new capacitors; search for instructions on how to solder and purchase capacitors; and curse creatively after doing it for the 5th time.

The unique thing about the capacitor plague is how easy it is to identify: the capacitors literally blow their tops, venting electrolyte through the special stress relief indentations. It’s also unique in that anybody with a soldering iron has a very good chance of fixing it: the caps are easy to locate and solder. In the age when most electronic components are of the “surface mount” type (the size of a sesame seed) or chips with dozens legs as fine as silk, soldering in a two legged capacitor is very refreshing.

Here’s a nest of capacitors from my busted power supply: two in the left corner are clearly popped, the one on the right is probably ok:

In the last couple of years the following devices that I own fell prey to faulty caps: a cheap off-brand dvd player, a speed control on my Dodge Caravan’s air conditioner, a Netgear network hub, a huge and expensive Air King window fan, and now, my ReadyNAS. The interesting thing is that the problem exists in both high end and low end products, as well as in high tech and low tech ones (I did not know there were electronic components in the window fan).

I am out of warranty on my ReadyNAS because I bought it in May of 07. The following passage leads me to believe that the shitty capacitors are a problem that they are aware of and (maybe) fixed in newer releases of the hardware (they could not offer a 5 year warranty if they used the same capacitors – they’d just go broke).

“Please be aware that ReadyNAS purchased prior to August 21, 2007 carries a one-year limited warranty. Extended warranty purchased for these ReadyNAS will be honored by NETGEAR. ReadyNAS NV+ and 1100 purchased August 21, 2007 and later have a 5-year limited warranty, and the ReadyNAS Duo has a 3-year warranty.”

The brand name of the popped capacitors reads “Fuhjyyu”. It lead me to the an urban dictionary entry that says that Fuhjyyu is either

“1) Chinese word for feces.


(2) Brand name of abysmal quality capacitors that are installed on logic boards, switching power supplies and various other electronic components.”

There’s also a post from a guy who implores ReadyNas to stop using those capacitors.

Then there’s – a global capacitor gripefest that is too depressing to read.

You can see a nice gallery of busted caps over here

There are broader implications of this: coupled with the fragile lead free solder, leaky capacitors don’t only cause kajillions of dollars of damage, but will also make electronics of our era impossible to use in the near future. The aluminum in burnable cds and dvds are rotting too, destroying the record of our time.