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  • Michael Krakovskiy 9:26 pm on May 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: beautician, , , , , , , Learning, , math teacher, , Michael Bloomberg, , , Richard Trethewey, , , , technology pioneer, This Old House, USD   

    On Learning to Code. Or Not. 

    Alert! Jeff Atwood wrote an excellent post about the “learn to code” movement.

    He starts with a tirade full of incredulity about Mayor Bloomberg’s New Years resolution to learn to code with Codeacademy.

    “Fortunately, the odds of this technological flight of fancy happening – even in jest – are zero, and for good reason: the mayor of New York City will hopefully spend his time doing the job taxpayers paid him to do instead.”

    Let’s put aside the princely sum of $1 that His Honor collects from the job. Let’s even put aside that Mayor Bloomberg is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing – promoting New York’s bustling tech industry. More to put aside: our Mayor happens to be a technology pioneer with a ridiculous IQ.

    This all comes down to a very difficult question: should people learn nerdy things when they have little use for them, just for the sake of learning.

    I remember a Livejournal discussion that was hashed over and over in the Russian-speaking community. A math teacher was stumped by a question from his student: why was she supposed to learn about trigonometry when she wanted to become a beautician. The teacher did not come up with a good answer, but the livejournalers did dig up some awesome reasons. One well meaning pro-education-for-the-sake-of-education zelot said something to this effect: well, if you work with nail polish, tangents and cotangents figure prominently in formulas that deal with reflectiveness of thin films. That will lead to a greater understanding of how and why nail polish looks the way it does.

    On the surface it may seem that Mayor Bloomberg has about as much need to know how to code as much as a beautician needs to know about sines and cosines.

    There’s more: executives who learned a little bit about writing code at some point tend to say the following phrase “oh, I don’t know much about writing code, just enough to be dangerous”. They say it with this look on their faces:

    Jeff takes this further with the plumbing analogy: since almost everyone has a toilet, should everyone take a course at toiletacademy.com and spend several weeks learning plumbing?

    Normally I’m against education for the sake of education. I once argued for a whole hour with a co-worker who felt that _any_ education is worth _any_ amount of money. I did not know at the time that he held degrees in Psychology of Human Sexuality, Biology, Sociology and Communications. He must have been on to something: he made an amazing career while mine took a nosedive soon after that discussion.

    Here’s where Jeff is wrong (I know, this is shocking, Jeff being all wrong and such): it is better to push people to learn incongruous things then to tell them that this is a bad idea. Steve Jobs learned calligraphy in college and it turned out to be super useful. He might not have become a master calligrapher, but man, did that piece of esoteric knowledge change the world.

    When I was in college I badly wanted to take a scientific glass blowing class, but did not. I deeply regret that.

    Are there people who learned plumbing from This Old House annoying contractors? Yes. Are self-install refrigerator ice maker lines causing millions in water damage? Yes. Is the world better off because Richard Trethewey taught it some plumbing? Absolutely.

    If anything, attempting to learn to code will make people more compassionate towards coders. I do believe that people who are not already drawn to programming are not likely to become programmers, more than that, they are not likely to sit through a whole RoR bootcamp or worse. Learn to code movement is not likely to lure in bad programmers, but it might give people some understanding of what coders go through and maybe be more hesitant to have loud yelling-on-the-phone sessions near their cubes. Mayor Bloomberg, who enforces open workspace policies everywhere he works, might understand why programmers need offices. Jeff, let His Honor code a bit.

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

    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 9:48 am on May 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Brooklyn Bridge station, , , , , , , Old City Hall Station, , USD   

    Old City Hall Station in NYC 

    If you board a number 6 train at Brooklyn Bridge station on the downtown platform, look out the window, shielding your eyes from the fluorescent glare as the train, screeching like a banshee, returns to the uptown platform, you can catch a glimpse of the fabled Old City Hall station.

    old city hall station

    For years conductors used to sweep the train cars ejecting people trying to take a look, but these days you are allowed to ride the City Hall loop, and if you buy a Transit Museum membership and be lucky enough to score a ticket, you can tour the station in person.

    old city hall station

    You can gawk at the vaulted ceilings,

    old city hall station

    see the remnants of tar from WWII blackout on the skylights.

    old city hall station

    Take in the atmosphere. It’s eery.

    old city hall station

    The brass chandeliers no longer have beautiful carbon filament lamps (which can be purchased for about $20 a pop), but are almost as dim.

    old city hall station

    The passing trains produce a deafening noise navigating the roundest piece of track in NYC.

    old city hall station

    There are more skylights and more tar (they used to be completely covered in it because of wartime considerations.

    old city hall station

    The lobby does not have the original ticket booth, but there are no turnstiles ether. Your metrocard is no good here.

    old city hall station

    Things are a little shabby, but the abandoned station is pretty well preserved and restored. It’s truly a pity they don’t use carbon filament bulbs.

    old city hall station

    The combination of modern trains and the ancient station is unsettling.

    old city hall station

    It’s freaking magical.

    old city hall station

    Yep, the protagonist of the novel “From Time To Time” could use for time travel.
    old city hall station

    And then they bring out a special wooden bridge, and it’s back to modern times.

    old city hall station

     
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