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 memepool.com, 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.

How to Help Tiny Tower Zombies Through Time Travel

Do you have a friend or a loved one who exhibits a strange fixation on an iphone game that makes them perform mindless repetitive tasks and mutter gibberish about “building new floors”, “dream jobs”, and “stocking the bowling alley” while producing cash register sounds. Don’t worry, these people did not go nuts – they are simply addicted to “Tiny Tower” – iPhone’s version of Farmville.

Tiny Tower is an insidious game: it’s designed to make its victims perform in-game routines wired to the pleasure center of the brain while keeping them comfortably numb. There’s something meditative in these repetitive tasks, they are akin to playing with prayer beads. The concept of the game also carries the religious theme, as the player is tasked with controlling the fate of “bitizens” – little pixel people, assigning their jobs and apartments. This feeling of control over the fake little world is its own reward.

After getting tired of seeing my co-workers spending their lunches hunched over their Tiny Towers I tried to put a stop to these “lunches of the living dead”. Cracking jokes about “tiny towers” didn’t work, and neither did the appeals to reason.

The most insidious part of the game is the fact that you need to spend a lot of time waiting for the items to be restocked and the floors to be built. I thought that the developers of the game would implement some kind of an independent timer, but they were lazy and used the system time. It turned out that the best way to fight the Tiny Tower zombification is to show how to change the system time (settings -> general -> date and time -> uncheck “set automatically”) so that the money accumulation and the floor building would go fast. Once that happens the whole addictive game dynamic is broken and you can again talk to your friends and colleagues.

I, for one, welcome our new social overlords

Disclamer: I thought that Google Wave was an excellent idea, so you can safely disregard my blathering here.

Here’s what I’m picturing in my head: Google has approached Facebook and Twitter on the playground. Twitter stole a piece of Facebooks lunch, but can’t really hold onto it. After a few threats and a bit of running around and a few ineptly thrown punches Google got itself into position to really clean Facebook’s clock and take its lunch. Foursquare and Groupon which earlier evaded Google’s punches in the most ebarracing for Google way possible are likely to be lunchless later. It is rather strange that Google does not go after scrawny TV Guide and White Pages – it looks like their lunches are not that tasty.

Yes, it’s just another social network. Yes, Google has a track record of failing fast and frequently (which if I remember correctly is a “good thing”). But remember, a bunch of incompetent coders received such an applause, press coverage and a whole evem some money to build a Facebook alternative. And finally mighty Skynet is doing the same thing. I think the company behind the mighty Skynet and the future parent of our robotic overlords has a chance against a bunch of compiled spaghetty PHP.

P.S. Zuckerberg and his approach to privacy creeps me out, so I have deleted my Facebook account and turned it into a blank account used only for work (writing Facebook apps, testing and such). I’m completely fed up with the character limit on Twitter – it’s nothing more than a feed from my blog. But I do want to share photos, and I do want to post shorter, non-blog-worthy thoughts. I’m really rooting for Skynet here.

Odessa Close Up

I own a few quality Canon lenses, but 100-400 zoom lens is my favorite. 100-400 is heavy and it needs to be swapped in for something more reasonable often because it only catches a small part of the overall picture. Yes, extreme closeup is a cheesy trick: every object starts looking more significant than it already is when the focus is on it and the background disappears in a soft blur known as “bokeh“. But more often than not I do want to get rid of the clutter and take a closer look at something, to intensely focus on one thing. Sometimes looking at an object zoomed in at 400 you find something new – like a ghostly outline of the old company name hiding behind a new neon sign or a joke left in by the sculptor or notice what is going on on the tops of skyscrapers.

100-400 seems to add a strange, otherworldly glow to things – the glow that I associate with memory.

Here’s a series of closeup photos of my hometown, Odessa. Beware, if you are from there this might cause some serious nostalgia.

The postal boxes were repainted a few times, but are still pretty much the same.

A core sample is the best demonstration for watermelons

But you have to trust the merchant’s sign that the grapes from Tairovo are sweet!sweet!

The dish of my childhood – a tomato salad with tomatoes that taste like tomatoes.

The building in the background is gone, but the old horse chestnut (which is probably a few hundred years old) is still around

Here’s what you do with the leaves of acacia: you rip them off in one motion and hold them tight in your fist. Then you let go in an upward motion and try to catch as many as you can. Then you play age old game of loves me-loves me not with the remaining leaves. Well, at least that what I remember.

Kitteh, as neglected as the city itself voices her complaint.

A pigeon walks around in fallen acacia flowers in front of my hildhood home. I gathered a bunch of these flowers. They still smell like the city that I lost.

These flowers in the park are still the same.

A terrible piece of tile grafitti sprung on a refined and sophisticated building by its new owners is now covered in even cruder grafitti. Soon the slate will be wiped clean. The act of tiled vandalism always amazed me when I saw it as a kid – it was one of the first hints as to what happened in 1919.

The staircase that leads to the sea at 13th Station of the Big Fountain. If you were brave, you could ride it down, but it lead to more sprains, scrapes, ruined pants and mis. injuries than I care to remember. Yet few kids could pass by the opportunity to ride it down.

Seemingly indestructable electrical poles are surprisingly free of ads, but they must have carried more of them than many newspapers.

Pushkin’s fish is still spitting into the fountain basin full of coins left by tourists.

Corn on the cob at the beach is as spectacular as ever

A remnant of a communal flat: after the Soviets kicked out and mostly shot the old tenants, what is known in New York as a “classic 5“, a spacious one family apartment became a 5 family apartment. The communal spirit was not complete though – all 5 bells would have been connected to separate electricity meters.

These sturdy cast iron garbage urns might be pre-revolutionary in origin. They always reminded me of the Pushkin monument and the drinking fountain in the park (which I’ll cover further down).

Mercury from the City Hall building stares blankly

The iron fence of the old synagogue reminds me the fence in front of a church on 5th Avenue.

This is where I would jump off almost every time when visiting the park

Bullheads!

The laurel crown of Odessa’s beloved founder, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, looked like a kangol-style hat to me when I was little. I guess it still does.

Poor old lion dragged from somebody’s pre-revolutionary dacha to “the old Odessa corner”. I sat on this beast many a time for a photo, and so did probably millions of locals and tourists.

They still use homemade brooms – I’m sure these are superior to synthetic-bristled ones. At the very least they must be cheaper.

Wild grapes are in every other courtyard. They are extremely sour when green, but rarely survive into maturity.

This Atlas always amused me because unlike other classical atlases he wore a working man’s belt. He is in a very bad way.

This lion appears on dozens of buildings. I guess it was on sale two centuries ago.

It’s pretty hard to destroy ironwork.

I bet Alexander Pushkin tied his horses to this thing. Or something. It was good for jumping on and off it.

These trashcans were all over the place when I was a kid – I only found one in the back of a courtyard.

I bet this kid with a cournucopia (or just a bouquet) of flowers had a wingwang at some point.

A piece of Soviet sculptural impotence is still memorable to me for some reason. I think it’s supposed to sybolize basketball. Or the last drop of patience or something.

The crown of one of the last remaining cast iron ad pillars

There were a few of these things all over the city. As a kid I was told that these were for sampling gas – I remember trying to smell it at some point.

The entrance to the park – a place to meet after school.

A park bench

When I was crawling around the park as a toddler this fountain used to work. It always reminded me the Pushkin monument – it might have been cast by the same company. I still have memories of my father raising me up so I could take a drink.

Our sadistic gym teacher made us do pull-ups on these bars.

This is another place where no self-respecting child would walk on the ground instead of skipping on the parapet

This lamp has seen better times

Some people say these wells were operational at some point, others say that they were simply ornaments dragged from elsewhere where they were operational. In any case, these are reminders of the time when Odessa’s major source of water was roof-collected rain and the Fountains.

A lamp of the Soviet vintage

A horrible Soviet-era mosaic that is nevertheless burnt into my childhood memory

The soccer stadium lights always made me sad for some reason

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

Gmail and tracking numbers

Hunting around for UPS, Fedex,USPS, and Japan Post tracking numbers in Gmail is no fun. I really wish there was a way to aggregate all the shipping numbers in a single Gmail plugin which would at a glance tell me where all the crap that I ordered is at any given moment. Google already knows how to tell a tracking number from all other strings, and there are apps for iOS that aggregate tracking (unfortunately you have to manually type in all the tracking numbers). A Gmail plugin that would keep track of tracking numbers would be great – maybe anyone with a bunch of mythical %20 percent time at Google will implement this…

Umami Paste Review

I am mostly indifferent to sweets, but I absolutely love all things savory, so when I heard about a paste billed as “the ultimate cooking tool to enhance any savoury dish”, and more than that called “taste number 5 umami paste” — well, I had to buy it, even if it meant buying it on eBay and having it shipped from the UK.

taste-no-5-umami-paste

Umami is probably the most highly prized taste in Japanese cousine, the taste of salty meatiness. Interestingly enough in pure form umami can be mostly attributed to monosodium glutamate. Mostly – in the same sense that the addictiveness of cigarettes can be mostly attributed to nicotine. The overall picture is very complicated – there are many amino acids similar to MSG, I suspect just as “sweetness” can’t be attributed to a single molecule.

But back to the umami paste. When compared to dashi broth, which for me is an etalon of complex umami taste, Taste No. 5 is somewhat disappointing in its simplicity. There’s an overpowering taste of tomato – the primary ingredient seems to be tomato paste. The second strongest tasting ingredient is anchovy, which is great, but kind of stale. You can also taste olives, but for whatever reason these flavors fail to harmonize. The paste is a bit too oily as well.

A half-used tube of Taste No 5 sat in my fridge for a good while, but it’s far from a miracle ingredient, and is mildly disappointing. I think the main flaw is the heaviness of tomato taste. I give it 3 out of 5. A high quality tin of anchovies is a much more versatile ingredient, and so is a bag of kombu kelp.

My Favorite Google Chrome Extension

[Update] The latest iteration of JoinTabs extension contains ad malware. Which sucks, because this used to be a useful extension.

I open a page in a new tab. Then another, then another. A bit later I pop a new window. More tabs. Then another window. By the end of the day not only do I have a bunch of tabs, but also multiple browser windows. Hunting for one of the windows is difficult – it can be just about anywhere. The solution? Join Tabs for Chrome. It’s creates a little horseshoe icon, which when pressed moves all of your open tabs into a single browser window.

Now if I could only import all the open windows into Evernote in one key press I’d be set.