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  • 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, , , World Trade Center   

    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 8:06 pm on May 31, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Blue Sun Corporations Blue Sun Corporation, , Cash Machine, , Chase Manhattan Bank, , communications, , , , , , , , phone, , , , , , Verizon Wireless, , World Trade Center   

    Blue Sun Corporations 

    Blue Sun Corporation is and important, but not very noticeable part of the the brilliant, but so very canceled TV series Firefly. Their logo is everywhere you look, but they are oh so very evil. They conveniently provide all sorts of goods and services, but at the same time they run sinister human experiments, employ vicious killers and wallow in their crapulence in every imaginable way an evil corporation could.

    You can buy your very own Blue Sun t-shirt at Think Geek.

    In Manhattan there are two corporations that very much remind me of Blue Sun: Verizon and Chase. Every time I deal with them I feel that I am forced to do things that I don’t want to do and that I am getting a bad deal. The only reason everybody’s dealing with Chase and Verizon is because they are everywhere you look. In Manhattan you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Chase branch, and Verizon cellular signal reaches underground into some subway stations.

    Chase advertises its omnipresence with this sinister ad that could just as well be from an alien infection film.

    This kind of ubiquity allows these corporations to charge above market prices and have bad customer service.

    Why do I hate Chase? Well, they keep thinking of ways to make depositing money more difficult. First they changed their deposit slips. Am I the only one inconvenienced by that? No. Here somebody altered the little poster announcing the change.

    Now they started using cash machines that do not take envelopes, but scan your check. As you, me, and the people who plowed money into Riya, you can’t rely on computers to non-trivial optical recognition. I tried depositing 3 checks several times. The machine ate one of the checks (not giving me a receipt) and rejected the other two. I wasted a lot of time and cell phone minutes trying to report the issue (they did not even provide a courtesy customer service phone). I still haven’t seen the money from that check.

    Lying commission-driven customer service is another big problem. At Chase they constantly trying to sell you something. Once a customer rep tried to sell me a historically market out-performing mutual funds. He had this awesome “prospectus” with charts carefully selected to show crazy returns, but refused to give me a copy so I could research it.

    Verizon reps will routinely forget to tell you about contract extension that comes with any service change, even if you don’t have get a new phone. Then they will refuse to change anything in your contract. They will add expensive features you don’t ask for. Good luck trying to have your defective phone repaired – it’s an ordeal.

    Both Chase and Verizon are a bad value, but great convenience. I suspect that part of their penchant for name changing is not so much because they keep buying up competition, but because their customers don’t think very well of them at all. I was their customer when they were Chemical Bank and Bell Atlantic. They sucked back then too.

    The worst part of dealing with banks and communications companies is that they heavily penalize you for your mistakes, but there’s not much you can do to charge them for theirs.

    Chase stopped sending me Amazon credit card rewards for about a year. An hour of customer service phone calls and a month later I got my Amazon gift certificates. It’s free for them to mess with you: you have to do a lot of work to make sure that what you get from them actually comes through. Instead of digitally depositing the certificates, they send them on paper slips containing long strings of letters that you have to type in. It’s cheaper to splurge on the cost of printing and mailing in the hope that it will get lost. And if they stop sending them and you forget? Bonus. Also, there’s something called “float.”

    On the other hand, send your credit card payment late and you get a huge fee.

    Use a bit more minutes than are in your Verizon plan, and you’ll get a bill that will make your teeth grind. But on the other hand, they overcharge you and then sheepishly return the money (which just now happened to me), you don’t get to charge them a fine.

    I think there was this guy who charged his bank a fine for every mistake that they’ve made, but I can’t find a link.

    Anyway, to make the long story short, Verizon and Chase make me want to vomit in terror. I’ve been with them for years, but it’s time for a change.

    It’s interesting to note that I’ve worked for both Chase (briefly as a consultant) and for Newscorp. What’s interesting about it? Well, Newscorp owns New York Post which was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The “Manhattan” part of Chase Manhattan Bank (as Chase used to be known) comes from The Manhattan company, founded by none other than Aaron Burr. Because I currently work at the World Trade Center, I frequently walk past Hamilton’s grave in Trinity churchyard.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 12:10 am on December 29, 2007 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Mirabilis, , , , , World Trade Center, World Trade Center 7   

    Happy New Year! 

    Man, this was a tough year. I haven’t blogged much and you haven’t commented much, so I guess we are even.

    A lot of things happened. The little tree that I grew out of a pine cone from Rockefeller Center tree that was featured in 2006 card is growing fast. So does Natalie E. I grew 30-40 pounds or so.  With a little help from the Joel I found a new job and left Rockefeller Center (you should really check out his job board). I am at World Trade Center 7 now. I am slowly but steadily switching to Linux. I am hoping that 2008 is going to be my annus mirabilis because this one was more anus than mirabilis.

    Happy New Year!

    You can see the old New Year’s cards are here.

     
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