by Vadim Drobinin

Your weekly crème de la crème of the Internet is here!

12.07.2022 (read in browser)

  1. Intro

    Whatever is on my mind this week.

  2. Things I enjoyed reading

    Ten-ish articles I found worth reading.

  3. Things I didn't know last Tuesday

    Ten-ish facts I didn't know when I wrote the previous edition.

  4. Book of the week

    Some thoughts on the latest book I've read.

This is the 104th edition of the newsletter, and as I mentioned recently while weekly emails require a subscription, there is still a free monthly edition -- and here it is.

You can switch to weekly emails at the product page (and cancel it if needed), and get access to the previous paid editions as well to learn how I finally perfected bagels and brisket recipes, made a few seasonal desserts, and lost smell and taste senses.

On another heatwave

Probably the only time of the year when I feel miserable is when the temperature is above 25ºC.

That's this time of the year, so the only way to function is by consuming ice cream on daily basis.

Here are a few examples.

A soy Sauce ice cream with sweet noodles on top from a ramen place nearby:

A bitter chocolate ice cream in the making at home:

A fun fuct about chocolate ice cream: as you probably know, milk contains proteins that break capsaicin (and water doesn't), so one of the ways to "wash off" spicy food is to drink something milk-based. Apparently the same applies to chocolate, so the most rich chocolate ice creams don't have any milk.

Things I enjoyed reading

1. As TikTok grows, so does suspicion by economist.com

I could easily replace "TikTok" with any other social media here, and the message would probably be the same: when a startup gains too many users, people become worried about the power it has:

But there is a second, bigger fear about security, which concerns not what TikTok learns about its users, but what they learn from it. The app presents itself as an entertainment platform, with content to “make your day”. But as it has grown, so has the breadth of its output. About a third of TikTokers treat it as a source of news, according to the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. In countries with weak mainstream media the share is higher: in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, about half use the app for news. Young people, the most avid TikTokers, are more likely than others to get news from it.

I still feel like I should at least install TikTok first.

2. A mysterious cult that predates Stonehenge by Demi Perera

There are lots of questions about Stonehenge, but this article is not answering any of them: instead, it introduces a recent discovery of traces of an even older cult and archeologists seem to be quite stocked about it:

However, even in the hands of such experienced archaeologists, one AlUla discovery has continued to elude explanation. Spread over an area of a staggering 300,000 sq km and built to a fairly consistent type, are 1,600 monumental rectangular stone structures that also date to the Neolithic period. Initially named "gates" due to their appearance from the air, the structures were later renamed "mustatil", which translates to "rectangle" in Arabic.

There are some pictures in the post as well: looks like lots of effort to build.

3. On rebooting: the unreasonable effectiveness of turning computers off and on again by @keunwoo

When people ask me about my occupation, the answer often varies: sometimes I go with a very generic "I solve problems", and sometimes I go into details of things I build, but all of that is caused by traumatising experience of the past where people would ask me to fix their microwaves just because I said that I am a software engineer.

And yet I do know how to fix pretty much any computer-related problem: by rebooting it.

However, as you learn more about how computers work, I suspect that you start feeling uncomfortable about never outgrowing this seemingly hacky and arbitrary fix. Professional engineers working for the most celebrated technology companies on Earth are sometimes reduced to blindly rebooting everything from their personal workstation to hundred-node distributed systems clusters. Is this the best that anyone can do?

The author has a good point about it being a great way to reset the state, and that's what we mostly do, if you consider problems being simply wrong states here and there.

4. The Innocent Railway by Stefan Sagrott

An interesting story about the first railway tunnel in Scotland that is used by cyclists and pedestrians these days:

In 1825 a business consortium, consisting of Midlothian pit-owners and led by the Duke of Buccleuch proposed to build a horse-drawn tramway to link their pits with Edinburgh. Plans for the route were drawn up by renowned engineer James Jardine and land for a terminus was identified in the St. Leonard’s area of the city, adjacent to the then King’s Park.

This is also a sound initiative: to repurpose unused pieces of infrastructure for something completely different.

5. Designing A Perfect Pricing Page UX by @smashingmag

A great summary of main things to consider when building a pricing page. I mostly use third-party solutions for my landings, so as the result have a very limited control over the way they're structured and presented, but some of the things mentioned there made me think of switching back to an in-house option for the sake of control:

If you need to locate the free plan or the enterprise plan, where would you expect it to be on the pricing page? Indeed, the free plan is likely to be on the left, and the enterprise plan either in a separate tab or on the right. Indeed, in left-to-right interfaces, we intuitively assume that there is a sort of progression from simple basic plans to expensive enterprise plans from left to right.

It is also a good example of how UX could affect sales and ultimately the very existence of a product.

6. This Is the Code the FBI Used to Wiretap the World by Joseph Cox

This is a closure of some kind to the last year's story of an FBI-baked encrypted phone that was used by criminals and got them busted.

Last year, the FBI and its international partners announced Operation Trojan Shield, in which the FBI secretly ran an encrypted phone company called Anom for years and used it to hoover up tens of millions of messages from Anom users. Anom was marketed to criminals, and ended up in the hands of over 300 criminal syndicates worldwide. The landmark operation has led to more than 1,000 arrests including alleged top tier drug traffickers and massive seizures of weapons, cash, narcotics, and luxury cars.

This is not a classic social engineering attack per se, as it required way more planning and efforts, but it does show how even in the world of modern technologies the actual difference is made by people, and not by simply gaining access to something.

7. Thinking in Bets: How to Make Decisions Like a Poker Player by fronterablog.com

An interesting way to estimate how good is a decision you make is to approach it like a poker player who decides the next step during the game.

Professional poker players decide to bet (or not) on a hand by calculating the expected value of the bet.

Let’s say there is $300 in the pot — that’s the total money you can earn. You need $50 to call your opponent’s bet and you estimate a 25% chance of having the winning hand. So the expected value of that bet would be 25% of the $300, which is $75. Since the expected value ($75) is higher than the bet ($50), it makes sense to bet 50 bucks for that hand.

Do the same for your life decisions.

It's obviously harder to do when there is no direct conversion into money involved, or when there is not enough data to estimate chances for winning, but overall that sounds like a way better approach than throwing a coin.

8. The End of Localhost by swyx

It's been a while since I dealt with the localhost in its common sense, as for the past decade I mostly build mobile apps. Unless you want to work on a plane, dealing with backend codebase in a cloud probably makes sense, and then there are more and more planes with WiFi onboard. Sadly for iOS development clouds that could compile those fast enough are too expensive to use, which means there is still some room for improvement:

It takes a second to deploy a frontend preview with Netlify Drop and ~10 seconds with the Netlify CLI, but I still habitually use localhost for development because my iteration cycle is in milliseconds. I can and have moved part of that workflow to remote tools like Codesandbox, Gitpod and Stackblitz, but none of them are fully capable of replicating the full set of dependencies that I need for fullstack development. In fact, after one particularly bad livestream, I resolved to always use Netlify Dev (the Netlify local dev solution I used to work on) because the iteration loop of git-push-and-wait-for-deploy was so agonizingly slow (I had the same pain with AWS Amplify).

This newsletter is fully generated in the cloud too, by the way: I write some Markdown locally, but all templates are running by Netlify scripts.

9. Lessons From the Golden Age of the Mall Walkers by Alexandra Lange

I didn't know that there is an exercise where people walk in shopping malls, but the story behind it even more entertaining:

Was Knutson the original “mall walker”? It is hard to say for certain, as mall walking is a sport without a federation. It’s an activity dominated by a population the media often ignores, and it primarily occurs before official store-opening hours. For teens and older or disabled adults, the mall appears as a ready-made ersatz city, a theme park of urbanity even without the simulated New Orleans latticework of destination shopping experiences like the Mall of America. The mall was always intended as a protected space, its stores and spaces targeting suburban women and children at home during the day and isolated from walkable downtowns.

There are not that many malls here in the UK, and back in my chilhood I was yet to see a mall designed for people with disabilities, so that probably explains why this sounds so hard to believe.

10. How the Chili Pepper Conquered China by Cao Yu

Essentially chili peppers to Chinease communities were what salt is to us nowadays, and it shaped the local cuisine respectively:

There, ethnic minority communities began to use chili peppers as a way of adding flavor to their food. Guizhou didn’t have a single salt well, and the imperial government’s salt tax was staggeringly high. As a result, chili peppers became one of the few affordable condiments in the region. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of chili peppers gradually grew, until virtually all of the poor peasants in southwestern China became spice-eaters.

As these days I don't get much flavour out of my food, but still feel the heat, I do use pepper a lot, probably even more than salt.

Things I didn't know last Tuesday

1. Lemonade is not carbonated in many countries

I never really understood how American kids sell lemonade alone, as operating a carbonation rig requires at least some experience. Seems like they just sell lemon juice with water and sugar instead:

It is traditionally a homemade drink using lemon juice, water, and a sweetener such as cane sugar, simple syrup or honey. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Central Europe and Australia, a carbonated lemonade soft drink is more common.

Back in my childhood we didn't have a working soda syphon (mostly because catridges were hard to find), so it was relatively common to dilute juices with sparkling water, which would impart some mineral aftertaste as well, but now looking back I reckon I'd never call it lemonade anyway. Probably because it'd rarely be made of lemons.

2. Resignation from the House of Commons of the United Kingdom

I was quite suprised that a few UK ministers so easily resigned from their positions without any lengthy leave notice. Apparently that's because they're essentially MPs, and they can't resign their seats at all, but being a Minister for Transport is just an additional duty on top of that and could be easily removed.

Members of Parliament (MPs) sitting in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom are not permitted to resign their seats.

In my mind the closest example would be to stop working on a feature and switch to another project while still being a developer within the same team.

3. Why Walking on Legos Hurts More Than Walking on Fire or Ice

People walk on glass, coal, and nails, and yet Lego seems to hurt them more. Is there an explanation to it?

Legos are—for now at least—built from ABS plastic, an extremely hard and durable terpolymer plastic. They’re built to survive intense levels of abuse without shattering: A single two-by-two brick can withstand up to 4,240 Newtons, an unbelievable amount of pressure. That’s equivalent to a mass of around 950 pounds, and it would take 375,000 other bricks stacked 2.75 miles high on top to exert the same kind of pressure.

So when stepping on a single Lego brick, with its sharp corners and pointy bits and no give at all, there’s nowhere for the force to go except back into your very sensitive foot.

An important context here is that there are groups of people who walk on Lego pieces for numerous reasons (from raising money for charity to setting world records).

4. How Do Dolphins Choose Their Name?

I already knew that dolphins communicate between each other and use some kind of names, but never actually though where do the names come from:

By eavesdropping on six dolphin populations in the Mediterranean Sea, researchers at the University of Sassari in Italy revealed that differences in signature whistles were mostly determined by their habitat and population size, according to a study published in May in Scientific Reports. Sound travels differently in distinct environments, so dolphins create signature whistles that best suit their surroundings, according to the study authors.

And that's originally not that far from humans, where people used to pick up surnames based on their place in an environment.

5. Why BART uses a nonstandard broad gauge

Trains in Bay area have wider tracks, and while it's hard to explain this specific width, there are at least a few ideas:

The pamphlet does not specify why only the wide gauge of five-feet-six inches was tested and not others. One possibility is that the broad gauge was among the more widely used gauges in other countries. Another theory is that complex calculations were required, thus limiting alternatives that could be practically evaluated at the time.

On that note, pretty much all tracks in former Soviet countries are wider than in the rest of the world, and is called Russian gauge.

6. Electret

Now I am kind of sad I somehow missed it in my childhood when I was obsessed with magnets:

Electrets, like magnets, are dipoles. Another similarity is the radiant fields: they produce an electrostatic field (as opposed to a magnetic field) around their perimeter. When a magnet and an electret are near one another, a rather unusual phenomenon occurs: while stationary, neither has any effect on one another. However, when an electret is moved with respect to a magnetic pole, a force is felt which acts perpendicular to the magnetic field, pushing the electret along a path 90 degrees to the expected direction of "push" as would be felt with another magnet.

These days one of the big applications for electrets is N95 masks. They have an inner layer that is an electret which attracts and holds particles smaller than the holes in the mesh.

7. Why roller coaster loops aren’t circular anymore

Roller coasters these days have all kinds of loops but they're never really circular, which apparently wasn't the case before:

Between the 1840s and early 1900s, loops on roller coasters were perfectly circular — meaning riders would go from traveling in a fairly straight line to immediately moving into a curve. This rapid onset of curvature caused extreme G-force spikes that rattled passengers to their core.

It does look more balanced visually though:

But people used to experience up to 14 G’s, which is too much.

8. Digital amnesia

An easy access to smartphones and Internet changes the way our brains operate: basically they become lazier, which makes us rely on the phones even more:

It’s impossible to know for sure, because no one measured our level of intellectual creativity before smartphones took off, but Price thinks smartphone over-use could be harming our ability to be insightful. “An insight is being able to connect two disparate things in your mind. But in order to have an insight and be creative, you have to have a lot of raw material in your brain, like you couldn’t cook a recipe if you didn’t have any ingredients: you can’t have an insight if you don’t have the material in your brain, which really is long term memories.”

However there are not that many researches out there yet, so probably we gain something else in the meantime.

9. Toxic squash syndrome

Some vegetables have a compound that protects them against herbivores, and occasionaly against people too. Vegans are at risk, obviously.

In France in 2018, two women who ate soup made from bitter pumpkins became sick, involving nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and had hair loss weeks later. Another French study of poisoning from bitter squash consumption found similar acute illnesses and no deaths. The high concentration of toxin in the plants could result from cross-pollination with wild cucurbitaceae species, or from plant growth stress due to high temperature and drought.

A good rule of thumb is to cut cucumbers or zuccinis in the middle and try a slice: if that's bitter than it could easily ruin the whole dish anyway, so better to through it away.

10. Impact of hunger on anger, irritability, and affect

Finally someone did a research on "hanger" and confirmed that people do get angry and irrational when they're hungry:

Results indicated that greater levels of self-reported hunger were associated with greater feelings of anger and irritability, and with lower pleasure. These findings remained significant after accounting for participant sex, age, body mass index, dietary behaviours, and trait anger. In contrast, associations with arousal were not significant.

That's also probably one of those very few things I learnt myself while observing people around and found a confirmation in a paper afterwards.

Book of the week

There is a big difference between making something from scratch to learn all details of the process or to customise something to your own needs, and making something to save money.

The more I cook the more I understand how true it is for many dishes: I am very rarely in the mood to roll futomaki or fry onion rings, but happily would make an unusual dessert even if I were to spend twice the amount on tools and ingredients.

Jennifer Reese tries to summarise same thoughts in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter:

And fried chicken comes with baggage: You expect fried chicken to be so good that people lick their fingers. Literally. You expect people to linger at the table and loosen their belts, lean back in their chairs, tell stories, pull out a bottle of corn likker. You expect people to somehow recognize that this isn’t a meal like all other meals.

Sometimes all of that will happen.

Sometimes it will not.

By the time we sat down, I was bleak with exhaustion, everyone else was ravenous, and we put away that chicken in about ten minutes flat. The coating formed a crispy sheath around meat that, thanks to brining, was juicy and flavorful through to the bone. The potatoes were a celestial cloud of starch and butter; the biscuits, perfection. But I don’t remember a thing anyone said; I don’t remember anyone lingering at the table or thanking me or recognizing that the meal was special or iconic or hanging around afterward to drink corn likker.

While I wouldn't use the book as a source of recipes (they're relatively basic), and probably would have to calculate my own cost per item values (they're both outdated and for a different country), there is still a lot to learn from the author.

Overall I agree that for some recipes there is not much reason in putting in the effort, unless the complexity either decreases based on the size of the group (so if cooking for two people is as complex as for twenty, then don't cook it for two), or the costs could be absorbed somehow else (butter is more expensive to make than to buy unless you have a cow), or it uses up leftovers of another dish (think kimchi from veg scraps or stock from chicken bones).

That being said, cooking a decent steak for two is definitely more expensive, more time-consuming, and calls for more cleanup than ordering a KFC takeway, but it's a bit of a different experience.

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