by Vadim Drobinin

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

13.10.2020 (read in browser)

On daily ergonomics

This week's edition was a convenient struggle.

Over the course of the past few months I became way more conscious of my writing setup.

It has started with a laptop stand, then a proper screen, then a standing desk, then a kneeling chair.

Every step took some time to get used to.

Last week I went even further and replaced my battle-tested Apple Keyboard with a split ergonomic Keyboardio Model 01.

My wrists are quite grateful so far.

My brain is melting every time I am trying to find a comma or put curly braces.

My typing speed went down from 120 WPM to 20 WPM.

Luckily, I am a man of culture, and hence a proud owner of the typewriter Olympia SM2 circa 1956: the same machine Woody Allen is still using for his scripts (check out this video to get a sense of his daily routine). In my case it's mostly for printing labels of homemade premixed cocktails and vermouths, as well as for translating my Russian essays into English.

And if I am to share a single thing I have learned over the last few years with it, it would be that the speed doesn't matter when it comes to programming.

There are days when I write a line or two but solve a big problem. There are days when I have to do a research, or just focus and think a lot.

An ergonomic setup is not about speed anyway, it is about removing all the obstacles (whether it's pain in your wrists or inconvenient posture) in such a way so one could finally focus on what matters.

Now it is about building such a setup in the day-to-day life as well.

Things I enjoyed reading

1. Down the ergonomic keyboard rabbit hole by @SteWaterman

As you probably understood from the foreword, these days I am quite obsessed with my split keyboard. This post has been released on the day after my keyboard was delivered, and I was quite happy to see that I am not the only one walking through the gradual process of adjusting every possible parameter in the ergonomic equation:

Over the past few months, I have well and truly gone down the ergonomic keyboard rabbit hole. There wasn’t one big event that thrust me into this subculture. It’s been the culmination of me asking “couldn’t this be better” for 3 months straight.

2. Making the Monty Hall Problem weirder but obvious by @dynomight7

This problem was always terribly confusing to me. The player picks a door out of three, the host opens another one and offers you to change your mind. How come changing it is more profitable? I had to read about it numerous times, code it in various languages and yet always felt that there is something missing.

Well, I do not anymore, thanks to this very bright explanation:

The key insight is this: When Monty shows you that 8 of the 9 other doors contain goats, you haven’t learned anything relevant to your decision. You already knew there were at least 8 goats behind the other doors! So this is just like game 2. Option B still gets you the car 90% of the time.

3. How Caravaggio Destroyed (and Saved) Painting by @jerrysaltz

Caravaggio is one of my favourite artist. The first time I learned about him was in a funky book about the twelve most underestimated painters of the past, which I was trying to read on a plane to Amsterdam, almost falling asleep, six or seven years ago. And yet his biography and his art were so full of energy, I came back to the pictures again and again. Here is another reason why:

In the painting of him writing, I see an author at a loss for words to suit the subject, trying, failing, hoping a ghost of inspiration might appear. This is a slowness and desperation that all writers and artists know. The Martyrdom is a man looking away from his killer, knowing another presence is here, not knowing what, coming to terms with something, allowing his hand to reach in wonder toward this otherness he feels above him.

4. We Hacked Apple for 3 Months: Here’s What We Found by @samwcyo et al

This is pretty much the life worth living, that's it:

There were a total of 55 vulnerabilities discovered with 11 critical severity, 29 high severity, 13 medium severity, and 2 low severity reports. These severities were assessed by us for summarization purposes and are dependent on a mix of CVSS and our understanding of the business related impact.

Great to see that the bug bounty scheme works as expected.

5. Cockney rhyming slang history: the roots, the rhymes and the reasons by Grace Boyle

A noticeable part of my music exposure consists of Oxxxymiron's songs, who is a Russian rap author, grown up in Germany and graduated from Oxford. His obsession with the UK culture is a cross-cutting thread of many songs, and yet I never got to learn cockney by listening to it.

So, how exactly does this old-school lingo work? And, how on earth does a word like ‘plates’ come to mean ‘feet’? In its simplest form, a common word (feet) is typically replaced by a rhyming phrase of two or three words (plates of meat). The most proficient Cockney would usually shorten this back down to one word (plates). And, there you have it. Suddenly the expression ‘me plates are killing me’ translates as ‘my feet hurt’.

At least something now makes sense.

6. Play the long game when learning to code

For those aspiring programmers out there, who are not sure where to start and yet try to start again and again, there is this great advise from StackOverflow, the main sponsor of my career and one of my greatest mentors.

Learning to program can be brutal. You don’t know if you’re learning the right things and there just seems to be so much content to learn. Most of us don’t have the time to spend several years trying to nail down programming fundamentals.

Chances are, you’re concerned with how long it will take you to learn how to code. You feel this pressure to learn as much as you can in as little time as possible. You want to get away from your current role, or lack thereof, and make your way towards finally landing a job that pays you to code.

I am highlighting a pretty much the same problem in one of my recent talk, which is called The Nomadic Approach to Teaching iOS Development.

When someone comes to a city for a few days, just to visit as a tourist, they rarely learn everything there is to learn about taxes and medical insurance. So why do we do that to those trying to get a grasp of a new programming language? Let's show them the exciting stuff, they can learn about closures later.

7. The Death Of Lunch by Thomas J Bevan

OK, I am biased here. This post starts with a reference to two Russian authors. I adore books of the former and hate morals of the latter. And that is a sign of an interesting essay which I wholeheartedly agree with:

Dostoevsky said that you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners. Tolstoy said you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals. Me, I say you can judge a society by the way that it treats the lunch break. Which is another way of saying by the way that it treats the average working stiff.

Every job I’ve held that I look back on fondly (or at least with relatively less contempt) took the lunch break seriously. It was inviolable. Tea breaks were sacrosanct. Smoke breaks were understood as being far more of a morale booster than any team-building exercise or paintball outing.

8. Why read Boethius today? by John Marenbon

I am pretty sure the majority of my subscribers re-read Boethius occasionally instead of their morning newspaper, and yet for those who do not here is your annual reminder on why you should:

This question is one that still troubles us. Believers and non-believers alike seek answers about how to live in relation to our mortality. But the way in which Boethius the author answers these has a complexity and many-sidedness that brings the Consolation even closer to today’s readers than it did to his contemporaries.

9. What Working At Stripe Has Been Like by patio11

An interesting observation which I do second:

I’ll note that working in a growing startup will give you many, many ideas for companies to start. Basically every internal tool at a company capable of putting good engineers on a “boring” problem should be used across the economy at companies that can’t get that caliber of engineer on that sort of problem.

My prior experience with startups was pretty much a daily flood of thoughts within the lines of "This X looks like a startup opportunity".

The only reason I didn't embark on a journey of building my own company was that the majority of these ideas were somewhere on the scale from "an AirBnB for cats" to "a button to press other buttons".

10. Tolstoy: the forgotten philosopher by Jeremy Epstein

You have probably seen this coming.

A big part of my school education was orbiting around Tolstoy. We had to read and recite the War and Piece at the age of 14.

There are certainly parallels between Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (and, in turn, with other preceding works), but I for one disagree that the former is a mere regurgitation of the latter. Tolstoy is selling himself short. His theory of free will vs necessity is distinct from that of Schopenhauer (and from that of Kant, for that matter). And the way he explains his theory – in terms of a "spectrum of free-ness" – is original as far as I'm aware, and is laudable, if for no other reason, simply because of how clear and easy-to-grok it is.

Despite of the free will theory, the biggest one of Tolstoy's ideas always was the one of "co-suffering" which in Russian is literally translated as "being compassionate", and he used this play of words to the greatest extent of sadness.

The author says in the title that this is the "forgotten philosopher".

I'd add that he is forgotten for the better.

Things I didn't know last Tuesday

1. TV pickup

Ah, that's the best.

TV pickup is a term used in the United Kingdom to refer to a phenomenon that affects electricity generation and transmission networks.

So here in the UK, there is a phenomenon where during a break in a TV show everyone puts the kettle on, and a surge in demand caused by the switching on of millions of electric kettles brings down the whole electricity network.

Think about it next time you decide to brew your cuppa during the Great British Bake-off.

2. Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland

What if the solid part of Victorian fairytails has been inspired by mushroom-induced hallucinogenic trips? I won't be surprised.

By the mid-nineteenth century, then, the fly agaric had become synonymous with fairyland. The mushroom had also, in the guise of the Siberian sources, been claimed as a portal to the land of dreams and written into European folklore. Exactly to what extent and in what manner these two cultural journeys of the fly agaric are intertwined is hard to pin down. Long before the Siberian accounts, in both art and literature, mushrooms of all sorts are depicted as part of fairyland.

3. CO2 can be used to convert seawater into drinking water

So think SodaStream, but instead of carbonating water it gets desalinated in minutes and without the use of electricity:

The technology works by adding the compound diamine to saltwater. The type of diamine used is CO2-responsive, meaning that the substance’s behaviour can be controlled when it comes into contact with CO2. The diamine binds with the added CO2 and thereafter acts as a sponge to absorb the salt, which can then be separated. The entire process takes 1-10 minutes. Once the CO2 is removed, the salt is released again – allowing for the chemicals to be reused for several more rounds of desalination.

4. Menger sponge

I mean, Wikipedia sums it up pretty well...

It is a three-dimensional generalization of the one-dimensional Cantor set and two-dimensional Sierpinski carpet.

...but for those with the imagination like mine here is how it looks like:

5. Generating electricity from pine needles

So some folks are eating the pine needles, and while I do question such a decision I can't really judge them for it. This one is even more interesting though:

This technology had started to gain traction in India in 1994, when the engineer S Dasappa and his team at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore started working on improving biomass gasifiers in collaboration with the engineering company Dasag, based in Switzerland. They experimented not with pine needles, but with agricultural waste like rice husks, leaves and coconut shells as feedstock, heated to over 1,000C in a reduced oxygen environment. In those conditions, the needles gave off a mixture of gases, including carbon monoxide, methane and hydrogen. These gases were further cleaned of dust and tar and burned to power an electric generator.

6. A small, family-owned electronics company controls 97% of the ice cream truck music market

Not a bad way to control the market:

...as the founder of Nichols Electronics, a tiny Minnesota-based company, Bob supplied the music boxes — preloaded with dozens of jingles — for the vast majority of the country’s ice cream trucks.

In short order, “The Entertainer” was on Nichols music boxes all over the nation. And 25 years later, it has become the country’s ice cream truck song of choice.

7. Origins of grapefruit

I have two takeaways here:

  • Don't drink grapefruit juice with most medications, it screws them up
  • The origins of its name could be thanks to someone in 17th century who tried the fruit and was like, 'Oh, it tastes like unripe grapes'.

It’s commonly stated that the word comes from the fact that grapefruits grow in bunches, like grapes. There’s a pretty decent chance that this isn’t true. In 1664, a Dutch physician named Wouter Schouden visited Barbados and described the citrus he sampled there as “tasting like unripe grapes.” In 1814, John Lunan, a British plantation and slave owner from Jamaica, reported that this fruit was named “on account of its resemblance in flavour to the grape.”

8. Cheese mold has sex

I decline to explain how I end up reading this paper in a highly credible scientific magazine, but essentially, the researchers discovered that a fungus has all the genes and mechanical bits that it would need for sex. And not only is it capable of sex, there is evidence that it’s actually doing it, which means there might be new types of cheese impossible to develop before.

Here, we investigated the sexual capability of the fungus Penicillium roqueforti, used as starter for blue cheese production. We present indirect evidence suggesting that recombination could be occurring in this species. The screening of a large sample of strains isolated from diverse substrates throughout the world revealed the existence of individuals of both mating types, even in the very same cheese.

9. The secret formula for WD-40

The formula of WD-40 is so secret, it left its vault only twice, says the CEO of the company:

We have only ever taken it out of the vault, well, twice. Once when we changed banks. And the other was on our 50th birthday. I rode into Times Square on the back of a horse in a suit of armor with the formula...

I must say, that's not a bad way to celebrate the 50th birthday.

10. Gnocchi day

In Argentina the 29th day of the month is Dia de Ñoquis — the Day of Gnocchi:

The 29th of the month was just before payday — people got paid on the first of the month — so by the end of the month, money was tight and all that was left in the larder was potatoes and flour. Gnocchi, or ñoquis, are the perfect solution as they are filling and not expensive.

Given the way my home bar gets restocked, I might consider turning the 6th into the Martini Day. That's when I receive a new bottle of gin.

Book of the week

I wouldn't say that the books I read are seasonal, but they are indeed circular. I rotate between various topics on a daily basis, and yet constantly return to the same authors or series.

To some extent it helps me to re-evaluate whatever I learned from them in the past, but mostly I just enjoy getting back to this virtual equivalent of an abruptly ended conversation with a smart person.

Here is on life mottos from Heston Blumenthal's pinnacle "The Fat Duck Cookbook":

Both of them are great at getting a team working with purpose, and their catch-phrases have become part of the slang that bandied about in the kitchen. 'Less chitchat, more chopchop' was Garrey's constant admonition. Ashley's is 'Push on.'. (Every section seems to end up with a catchphrase. The advice of Kyle Connaughton, the head of my development kitchen, is generally to 'Hit it' with something – usually accompanied by a vigorous waving back and forth of a clenched fist – no matter how delicate that something might be. And I've used 'I reckon' so often as the opener to a list of tests than need doing on a dish that the process is now known as 'a reckoning'. and my chefs have their notebooks ready almost before I've got the words out.)

I've been a vivid fan of his approach to cooking for almost fifteen years, and pretty much every single bit of cooking curiosity I grew up with is thanks to either Heston, or Russian cooking TV shows I've used to watch at my grandma's before I turned 5 (the latter was more in the way of "I didn't know one could put so much mayo in one dish").

Thank you and see you in a week!

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Cheers! 🍸