by Vadim Drobinin

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

22.12.2020 (read in browser)

Before we get to the actual foreward, I have an apology to make, partly on Google's behalf.

The previous edition of this newsletter was delivered to some folks twice, and was delayed for others. You can read more about the reasons behind the biggest Gmail outage in years in Google's post-mortem, but in a nutshell they replaced @gmail.com with an invalid domain, so for a few hours these addresses simply didn't exist.

Last week I was reminding that software is eating the world.

As you can see, it does indeed.

On coffee

For the past decade or so I was growing more and more addicted to coffee.

Not any coffee, and not addicted in the sense usually implied when talking about substances and desire to consume more, even though my daily routine is built upon extensive consumption of food, spirits, and wine.

Coffee was a big part of my life as long as I remember.

I used to skip classes in my childhood to have a few shots of an espresso with mates in a cafe down the road. I used to grab a plastic cup of paper-y mocaccino from a vending machine after swimming sessions. I had Turkish coffee made on sand in Turkey, and made coffee in cezve myself in Russia. I mixed coffee with garlic, honey, cloves, and alcohol - the latter was way more successful. I wrote hundreds of pages sipping pour-overs from Starbucks, and drank rare filter coffee in the best London coffeeshops.

And yet I always preferred the espresso, its throat acidic bite and overwhelming combination of flavours. I always say that filter coffee is akin classical music; there is lots to it. Espresso is more about very well made rock, with its basses full mode on.

Somehow I have never managed to make espresso at home. Moka pots were close enough but not the same.

Until the last few months, as we got an espresso machine and spent weeks to dial into proper espresso recipes (everything matters apparently: the input vs output weight, the grind, the water, and so on).

And then we spent litres of milk to learn how to texture milk, make the proper foam and draw simple latte art.

It's been a lot of milk but it definitely worth it; we've used the leftovers for cooking, don't you worry.

Obviously there is more to it (namely more than a dozen of different coffee beans I am getting as this year's Advent calendar, carefully selected by my lovely wife -- will report once we finish all of them), and yet if I were to highlight the main takeaways of this year, it would be one of them.

Things I enjoyed reading

1. Concentrate! by Jonathan Rowson

I used to play chess a lot. Checkers were a mandatory lesson at my school starting from the grade one, and chess came a few years later (with a choice of playing Go for those keen enough).

I also used to play chess tournaments a lot. My first encounter of such a tournament was upon reading Ilf and Petrov's book "The Twelve Chairs", which is a classic satirical novel on attempting to obtain jewelry hidden in a chair, and the main characters manage to bamboozle a village chess club with promises of an international tournament.

Our tournaments were different though. Since Soviet times there is a unified Sports Classification System in Russia, which divides players in almost any sports into multiple categories, from Third-Class Junior Sportsman to Merited Master of Sport.

I hold a few ranks, but the only two related to this article are First-Class Sportsman in checkers and Second-Class Sportsman in chess, so I can relate to a few points here and there:

I could describe the feeling as a kind of evaluative hunting – not so much for a particular target, but for trails of ideas that look right and feel right. I am drawn towards some transfigurations of the patterns that make me look deeper, and repelled by others. Good moves have the qualities of truth and beauty. They are discoveries of how things are, and should be.

2. When life was literally full of crap by @jasoncrawford

Modern urbanists debate whether benches in parks should be segmented or not.

Urbanists of the past had slightly bigger concerns:

But excrement wasn’t just something to be cleared away. Oh no, that would be a profligate waste! Shit was valuable. It was a treasure. It was gold.

It was fertilizer.

3. Great Hacker != Great Hire by @eric_sink

This is an open debate to a fairly famous essay, urging people of power to hire great hackers (in its inital sense, not the modern kiddos trying to spy on classmates via their printers). Despite my disagreement with a few takeaways, I do enjoy the points made:

On this point, we agree. The best developers simply love to create software. They get paid, and their compensation is important, but it isn't really the primary reason why they write code. They wrote code before they were getting paid for it. They would continue to write code even after winning the lottery. When I hire developers, I am looking for this quality.

I also like the definition of developers as "programmers who also contribute in non-coding ways". This is very true, and the industry learnt to avoid so-called "coding monkeys" as much as possible. The way we as engineers contribute to products is not only about buttons on screens, or numbers in logs; it's also a different approach.

4. The Strange Case of Dr. Ho Man Kwok

Despite the title being not really self-explanatory (albeit misterious enough to click), this is a great story behind the myth of MSG (Monosodium glutamate) used in Asian dishes.

A few weeks later, when the letter was actually published under the title “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome,” Steel was pleased with himself and promptly went to Hanson to pay up. Lest anyone think the phenomenon was real, Steel contacted the letters editor to tell him it was “a big fat lie,” he said.

Given that post-Soviet cuisine relies on MSG a lot, I didn't know about that being a problem for many until the move to the UK. Good that it's a myth anyway.

5. How to let go of a lifelong dream by Christian Jarrett

I didn't have to let go of lifelong dreams that much (though I dreamed of becoming a scuba diver, in its very old-school sense back then when I was four years old), and yet this is a really detailed and well-narrated story:

However, he recommends bearing in mind a phenomenon known as ‘goal shielding’ – when we’re highly focused on a particular dream or ambition, we tend to filter out inconvenient information that might imperil the project. ‘Motivational psychologists call it an “implemental mindset”,’ says Wrosch. ‘If you cross the Rubicon, you focus on what you want to achieve, and you don’t have that balance [in how you process the situation] any more.’ For that reason, he says most us are, if anything, probably more at risk of stubbornly pursuing a dream for too long than giving up too early.

6. How to cook a medieval feast: 11 recipes from the Middle Ages by Maggie Back

The holidays are coming, and as I was browsing the Web for festive dinner ideas out there I couldn't pass by a selection of these recipes. In fact it is not as bad as I thought it'd be.

The original recipe calls for ‘verjuice’, a popular medieval condiment made from specially grown or (in England) unripe grapes. But another recipe from the Medieval household book Le Ménagier de Paris (the Goodman of Paris) suggests using the juice of Seville oranges. If you can get these in season and freeze them, you can use their juice as a substitute for verjuice – it makes a delicious sauce.

However, I have to point out that "verjuice" is still a very popular ingredient. It is still widely used as a condiment (think of replacing lemon juice or vinegar with it), but also as a cocktail ingredient. No need to replace it with Seville oranges juice, that's for sure.

7. Why Content is King by Nathan Baschez

Thanks to Bill Gates for the quote to use in the title, this post is exploring levers and reasons behind the power of media companies.

Other companies exploit this strong linkage by empowering creators to go independent. Substack, where I used to work, is perhaps the most notable example. This year we’ve seen dozens of prominent journalists break away from their publications in order to go independent on Substack. The reason it’s possible is because their fans care about their creativity more than the company they used to work for.

It won't teach you how to create better content though but will explain why it matters.

8. Bubblesort, rocksort, and cocktail-shaker sort by @ColossalCaveTBG

Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming is one of those books I had to use a lot in the past.

The bubble sort was one of the first ways to sort an array I ever learnt (and yet didn't use much).

This refinement increases the aptness of the name “cocktail-shaker sort,” because now we’re literally shifting the whole container up and down by small increments in a repetitive motion. But paradoxically, we’re shifting the container in order to impart less motion to the elements inside; and the result is not a perfectly mixed drink but rather a perfectly unmixed one.

Somehow I completely ignored the introduction of the cocktail-shaker sort, which is actually quite smart! It's also completely opposite to an idea of a working cocktail shaker. And the sorting algorithm itself is pretty much as bad as bubble sort, so is not used in the wild.

9. Unicorn Traits by Richard Awoyemi

How to distinguish a will-be-very-successful startup from a yet-another-attempt-at-a-messenger-with-gifs? Despite working for both types of products, I can't add more to these few points:

Any less would make for an overcrowded market - because it would be too easy to enter. Any more would require “cascading miracles” (ref. John Malone) to succeed. The compounded the difficulty, reduces the slim chance of success from low to virtually zero.

Telegram, actually, pretty much fits the template.

10. Double Blind Passwords (aka Horcruxing) by @phanikaran

An interesting concept of protecting your passwords with the second layer of encryption, but instead of relying on something third-party just add a word or a few to all of them. So while you can store passwords in a password manager, once it is hacked you can't really do much. If instead you store only a part of each password, and the other part is something only you know about, it gets way better.

Basically, at any given point in time, you and your password manager know only a piece of the password. It's double-blind. In effect, just like You-Know-Who, you're splitting your password (soul) into pieces and storing them in different places.

Bear in mind that even though you could use a single "horcrux" for all passwords, there is a lesson from Voldemort to learn. If two passwords are compromised, the attacker might notice that they have the same suffix or prefix, and here you go -- the Basilik Venom at its best. Don't let muggles to do that to you.

Things I didn't know last Tuesday

1. Lenin spoke English with an Irish accent

A mandatory disclaimer: given my background, I pretty much think of Lenin the same way as I think of Santa Clause. People claim it exists and affected the modern world in many ways, and yet I always mix dates and historical events.

"Lenin said that his tutor in English was an Irishman and that was why he was speaking with an Irish accent," he said.

This knowledge will be with me forever though. I am just mixing Peaky Blinders with pioneers in my head and not going to stop any time soon.

2. Tsundoku

A beautiful word and of current interest: occasionally I do buy books which I don't plan to read any time soon.

The word "doku" can be used as a verb to mean "reading". According to Prof Gerstle, the "tsun" in "tsundoku" originates in "tsumu" - a word meaning "to pile up".

So when put together, "tsundoku" has the meaning of buying reading material and piling it up.

It's just the beauty of shelves filled in with proper literature, you know.

3. LP record

We got into vinyl records recently, and on my way to hunt a few old collectables from Ebay I had to learn a few things, namely that "LP" stands for "long play".

The LP (from "long playing" or "long play") is an analog sound storage medium, a phonograph record format characterized by a speed of 33 1⁄3 rpm, a 12- or 10-inch (30- or 25-cm) diameter.

And by "long" they mean 20 minutes or so. Also "rpm" means "revolutions per minute", which does make sense and yet I never thought about it.

4. Why we can smell copper

I didn't really ask myself about this; now I do realise that lots of metals smell: think of rubbing a coin in your hands.

Sweaty skin corrodes iron metal to form reactive Fe2+ ions that are oxidized within seconds to Fe3+ ions while simultaneously reducing and decomposing existing skin lipid peroxides to odorous carbonyl hydrocarbons that are perceived as a metallic odor.

What's interesting though is that they don't smell on their own. It's the reaction with the sweaty skin which forms the ions.

5. Romans used to add seawater to their wine

Not only there is a tradition to top up wine with salty water but also there are wineries that are still following this approach.

By pouring seawater into his wine, Durand is following a great, if largely forgotten, winemaking practice. The first references to it appear in writings on Coan wine produced on the Greek island of Kos, known for its mix of sweetness and salinity.

As a sidenote, try to add a few drops of saline solution to any cocktail. In most cases it will amplify the flavours and make it way more palatable. You can thank me later.

6. The word "vitamin" is only 100 years old

Two things to highlight here: the word vitamin celebrates its 100 years only this year; initially (and around a century ago too) it was named after a mix of words "life" and "amines" but then later folks has realised that not all vitamins are amines and just dropped a letter.

Vitamine coined by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk after the initial discovery of aberic acid (thiamine), when it was thought that all such nutrients would be amines. The term had become ubiquitous by the time it was discovered that vitamin C, among others, had no amine component. In 1920, British biochemist Jack Drummond proposed that the final -e be dropped to deemphasize the amine reference.

7. 35mm film is used to light up the Olympic flame

For those fancy of film cameras, here is a great use case for whenever you need to light up the Olympic flame:

And, in a way, it makes sense: nitrate-based cellulose film is extremely flammable after all.

Also just learned about the opening ceremony of the Games: ladies dress as priests, the Sun used to light the film up... how come all I ever watched is just competitive sports?

8. Elderly patients 23% more likely to die if their emergency surgery takes place on the surgeon’s birthday

A grim fact indeed but worth noting:

After adjusting for patient characteristics and surgeon fixed effects (effectively comparing outcomes of patients treated by the same surgeon on different days), patients who underwent surgery on a surgeon’s birthday exhibited higher mortality compared with patients who underwent surgery on other days.

I wonder if a similar study for not work-related events could highlight other things affecting mortality or success rates.

9. The Sockman

I am still coming to terms with the thought that the Peter the Great's monument is just a few miles from my house, and here we go again: another wacky sculpture, thanks to British hosiery industry.

The sculpture depicts a man seated on a bollard, naked except for the eponymous sock on his left foot.[2] The sock is symbolic of Loughborough's hosiery industry, and the plinth is engraved with images of the town's history.

10. overmorrow

A Russian acquaintance of mine has complained about English being an odd language. She said, they have the word "defenestration" (it is the act of throwing someone or something out of a window, not what you thought) but don't have words for the day before yesterday or the day after tomorrow.

Obviously I rushed to dictionaries ereyesterday to have some counterproof for the overmorrow's newsletter.

overmorrow (uncountable)

(archaic) The day after tomorrow.
Antonym: ereyesterday (obsolete)

Book of the week

Given the end of the year, I am rushing towars finishing a few books I started back in Spring, like this Joi Ito's collection of principles to adapt and survive the technological changes shaping our future, called Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future:

Of all the nine principles in the book, compasses over maps has the greatest potential for misunderstanding.
It’s actually very straightforward: a map implies a detailed knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path. The decision to forfeit the map in favor of the compass recognizes that in an increasingly unpredictable world moving ever more quickly, a detailed map may lead you deep into the woods at an unnecessarily high cost. A good compass, though, will always take you where you need to go.

And that's pretty much I how imagine it must work. Maps never were particularly favourable to me; they lack flexibility and get outdated.

More often than not I have to pay for this with my time, as instead of looking into documentation or quickly googling something I might spend minutes or hours trying to gain back the autonomy in discovering the right answer.

More often than not this time in fact is not wasted, and the pleasure of learning on my own outweights all cons.

Does it mean that I am ready for the faster future?

Thank you and see you in a week!

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Cheers! 🍸