by Vadim Drobinin

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

05.01.2021 (read in browser)

On New Year's resolutions

Back then I used to write very detailed New Year's resolutions.

I didn't really aimed to achieve them within a year though.

Writing things down, that's what matters. Written words stick to you as anchors, and via the power of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (also known as frequency illusion) lead to noticing such things more often.

Alas, at the dawn of this year I had a chance to re-evaluate my approach and instead of spreading out the thinking power onto numerous things I'd probably just focus on health.

We've been spending the last two weeks fighting with some wacky symptoms, and that made me think of humans' fragility more than ever before (except that period of my life full of obsession with Schopenhauer's essays on shuffling off one's mortal coil but that was a long time ago).

On that note, it seems like these few weeks or months I am an involuntary participant of Dry January. Here are a few things I've managed to mix before it started, heavily relying on a newly updated selection of amari:

Negroni Warmer

A herbal and warm drink, akin to a hot toddy, garnished with some orange whipped cream from an espuma gun:

Adam & Eve

A soothing and fragrant mix of bourbon and Italian herbs:

Manhattan Riff

A riff on Manhattan with an extra-kick of Trinidad and Tobago:

On the bright side of things, I have reviewed all previous editions and posted the best of the best as a standalone article of the things I learnt in 2020. It got a surprisingly well reception on HN, but nothing too intense to bring the website down.

Also I got way more time to read; maybe too much, to be honest,

Now you have to pay for it with your own time too.

Things I enjoyed reading

1. What Drives Writers to Drink? by James Parker

This is less about drinking and more about writing, creativity, and the language writers might think they have.

Thomas, even at 21, could see the writing—the lack of writing—on the wall: I “can’t, for the life or the death of me,” he wrote to his friend Vernon Watkins in 1936, “get any real liberation, any diffusion or dilution or anything, into the churning bulk of words; I seem, more than ever, to be tightly packing away everything I have and know into a mad-doctor’s bag, and then locking it up.” A torturing self-oversight, and a fear that his God-given facility with words might be a trick, a scam, fake poetry: These were the steady companions of his muse. In Last Call, it is the bartender of the White Horse—perhaps a hallucination by this point—who finally, hissingly articulates this terror to Thomas: that underneath the poetic fireworks there is “nothing … It’s just the cadence of the language.”

And apparently they do have sometimes.

2. Balintore Castle: History and Restoration by Dr. David John Johnston

So imagine buying a castle in Scotland on a condition that it will be restored.

And then restoring it.

And writing in a blog about it for years.

Yes, that's what is happening:

Around the year 2000 when I was most actively looking for a place to restore, I saw other buildings at roughly the same state of decay as Balintore. It has been shocking for me to revisit these other buildings more recently, as they really have gone downhill - with repair now clearly uneconomic rather than just borderline. Of course, no building is genuinely beyond repair but few people would take on such a challenge in the wilder regions of Scotland. So while the restoration of Balintore has been painfully slow, the realisation of what the building would be like now if I had not intervened, gives me comfort. There was a definite sea-change the day the building became wind and water-tight. One fight had been won, and there would be no further deterioration under my custodianship.

It's even available on AirBnb.

3. My year in data by Ala Szalapak

In the past I tried logging my daily activities with occasional success. However, I never tried to log all my activities in 15-minutes chunks for a year in a row:

Finding out how little focused work I do, even on the days that feel productive, was one of the biggest surprises of analysing my data. It turns out that a typical working day (9-17) would usually only give around 5-6 hours of actual work, while the rest of time would dissolve on low-focus work, chatting to people, coffee breaks and other little distractions.

It must be a great source of insights, and yet unless the recording process is somehow automated I can't really imagine enjoying the life full of notes taking.

4. The Eerie Beauty Of The Apple Watch Solar Face, And The Anatomy Of Nightfall by Jack Forster

This is my new favourite Apple Watch face. Not only it is quite practical, with a proper digital time dispaly and four complications, but also looks beautifully, supports crown gestures to "time travel", and every day reminds that the summer is not far away.

However, the disappearance of the Sun's upper limb below the horizon does not mean night falls instantly, like someone shutting off a light switch. Instead, it is the beginning of a period called twilight. Twilight is the period between sunset and true nightfall, when the last bit of sunlight finally vanishes, and the sky becomes completely dark. Twilight, as it turns out, is further divided into three phases: Civil Twilight, Nautical Twilight, and Astronomical Twilight, and it is the phases of twilight, plus sunset, which are indicated by the four dots clustered at sundown. As each type of twilight darkens, it reaches its Dusk phase, which marks the transition into the next Twilight period. (The word twilight, incidentally, is Old English in origin ... appropriately enough for a term describing visual obscurity, it is unclear what the prefix "twi" actually means; the word may mean, "half light.")

5. Many ways of splitting a rectangle in many by Alfonso Sánchez-Beato

Those conversing in Zoom and apps alike these days, it is not a secret that different apps display multiple videos on the screen differently. My least favourite is the Facebook's messenger, which cuts out parts of users' videos.

If they were to read this post though, they'd know about this very mathematical at its roots problem on splitting a rectangle in many smaller rectangles, because that's essentially what they're trying (and failing to do):

This intrigued me, and I started some research to try to find answers to these questions. I started with the assumption that the videoconference application owns a window on the screen, which is a rectangle (we will call it the bounding rectangle), and we want to divide it in 𝑁 different rectangles, being 𝑁 the number of people in the call. We can define different criteria for optimizing like, say, dividing equally the window area among the callers. However, for that we need to define mathematically the dividing rectangles, and here is where the first difficulty arises, as the mathematical description changes depending on how you split the window.

6. How I (almost) quit caffeine in 1 year by @dhruvkar

Here is an interesting and yet a questionable* way to put caffeine addiction into measurable chunks and slowly bring it down.

Enter jasmine pearl tea. It’s rolled up into a ball and each ball has 1-3 tea leaves. I started using three tea balls for my morning tea. Over the course of three months, I’m down to one tea ball every other day.

*I am curious about constraints on reproducing this experiment, e.g the amount of caffein in jasmine pearl tea is still noticeable, as it is not a herbal jasmine tisane (which has no caffeine), and solely depends on the weight and how long it was brewing. Also it might be interesting to see the results decaf cofee might bring, as it doesn't have caffeine either but there are blends with really good flavours, and it can be pulled as an espresso shot for this very recognisable acidic throat kick many crave.

7. How They Shot the Impossible Mirror Scene in 'Contact' by @TheWorstNun

I didn't watch the movie but I have to now:

She sprints frantically up the stairs. When she reaches the landing, like a nightmare, time slows to a crawl. Every second feels stretched, near-frozen, and precious. Then, reality breaks: the camera pulls back to reveal that everything we’ve seen has been a reflection in the cabinet mirror. Ellie grabs the pills, the door closes, and we see a reflection of a photograph of Ellie and her father. How was all of that a reflection? Did they use a double? Where was the cameraman? How the hell did they do that?

Even if you didn't either, do have a look: it's a great tour through the history of movie making back then when folks didn't have fancy CGI everywhere.

8. Banking on Status by @lehrjulian

This is a splendid point:

At first glance, this might seem counterintuitive. If you are building a mobile-first bank, why not offer virtual cards and let users pay with their phone? Why go through the hassle of producing and shipping physical cards?

The answer is – you guessed it – signaling.

Think about it: Paying for things (offline) is a social activity. It’s an interaction between at least you and a cashier or waiter. But ideally, in a dinner scenario for example, you are surrounded by other people you want to impress: a date, a group of friends, or work colleagues.

On the other side, I still remember the moment I took the metal Revolut card out of its box. It felt like an iPhone among cheap copies compared to other cards I had, and just holding it in hands felt pleasant.

9. Traumatic License: An Oral History of Action Park by Jake Rossen

A detailed story of one of the American's most famous amusement parks:

From 1978 to 1996, up to 20,000 people a day from the tri-state area would flock to Eugene’s oasis, which emphasized a ride-at-your-own-risk philosophy that earned it the nicknames “Traction Park” and “Class Action Park.” Speeding at high velocity down cement slides, boozy guests would try to push their limits—and Mulvihill would let them. Bodies flew off rides like crash test dummies; skin was peeled off in layers. It was not uncommon for guests to see bloody and bandaged patrons being driven across the grass in carts equipped with EMTs and stretchers.

Judging by the pictures, pretty much every single waterpark I've visited in my childhood has been inspired by the DIY experience of this one. Too late to complain though, it was fun anyway.

10. The mathematics of human thought by Keith Devlin

This is one of those hardest things an engineer learns early: to talk to a machine we need to get to its level of reasoning, which includes being logical:

By reducing reasoning to doing algebra, Boole opened up the possibility of building a reasoning machine. Even today, it is hard to imagine any kind of mechanical or (these days) electronic machine being able to reason the way humans do about, say, local politics. What can a machine possible know about local government? On the other hand, even in Boole's day it seemed perfectly possible to construct a machine that could manipulate algebraic symbols according to some general rules.

Indeed, the rules Boole presented for manipulating algebraic expressions and for solving equations in his system were sufficiently mechanical that the English logician W. S. Jevons was able to use them to build a mechanical reasoning machine which he demonstrated to the Royal Society in 1870. Not surprisingly, given the prevailing technology at the time, Jevons' device looked for all the world like an old style mechanical cash register. But for all its antiquated appearance, as an implementation of logic it was a stunning early ancestor of the modern electronic computer.

And that thought alone, more than 150 years ago, made the world we have today possible (at least partly).

Things I didn't know last Tuesday

1. BS 6008:1980

I was really surprised to find out that there is a standard for Martini cocktails, and as someone kindly pointed out there is another one for tea as well.

Given that it's been endorsed by the Royal Society of Chemistry in a press-release, I am hardly surprised.

Also a fun trivia:

The protocol has been criticized for omitting any mention of prewarming the pot. Ireland was the only country to object, and objected on technical grounds.

Fair enough, those Irish do know their cuppa.

2. Narezushi

Recently I've learnt that Salmon sushi isn't a Japanese invention, it's Norvegian instead. So what's the original Japan's sushi then?

The word sushi is derived from the Japanese word for sour, and its earliest form — narezushi — is pickled for months or even years.

First recorded in Japan in the 8th century, narezushi is considered a delicacy today because of how long it takes to make. But this preservation technique was originally born out of necessity. Before refrigeration, making narezushi was the one of the best ways to preserve seasonal fish throughout the year.

There are still places serving a 30-year-old aged ones, so think about it.

3. Dashed lines in the middle of a road are longer than we think

Each dashed line measures 10 feet [3.05 m], and the empty spaces in-between measure 30 feet [9.14 m]. So every time a car passes a new dashed line, the car has traveled 40 feet [12.9 m]. But in this study, people consistently judged the lines and the empty spaces to be the same size, claiming that both were two feet [0.6 m].

Now, that applies at least to the States and Canada. It's fairly easy to check via Google Maps (be careful if strolling on a highway with a ruler).

In the UK the length depends on the road and potential hazards. When this line lengthens and the gaps shorten, it means that there is a hazard ahead.

4. Blowing smoke up one's ass

I've heard this saying a few times, and it usually means that someone thinks you say something they want to hear. I didn't know the origin though, and it is quite... odd.

As it comes from a real medical procedure:

By the late 1700s, the blowing smoke had become a regularly applied medical procedure, mostly used to revive people thought to be nearly deceased, usually drowning victims. The process was so common, in fact, that several major waterways kept the instrument, consisting of a bellows and flexible tube, nearby in case of such emergencies.

The tobacco smoke was believed to increase the heart rate of the victim and encourage respiratory functions, as well as “dry out” the insides of the waterlogged individual, making this method of delivery more preferred than breathing air directly into the lungs via the mouth.

5. Apicius

A 2000-years-old cook book? Yes, please!

The name "Apicius" is taken from the habits of an early bearer of the name, Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived sometime in the 1st century AD during the reign of Tiberius. He is sometimes erroneously asserted to be the author of the book pseudepigraphically attributed to him.

Includes recipes with flamingo. Also has the original recipe for the French toast (called Aliter Dulcia back then).

6. Tom Ford decided to become a fashion designer because of Russian flu

I came across this interview by accident, driven by a claim from some Russian journalist that his decision was caused by a bad Russian salad, which would be hilarious.

You won’t believe this, but I decided to become a fashion designer while I was in Russia. While I was a student studying architecture in Paris, I went on a guided tour of the Soviet Union. We traveled to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. It happened in Leningrad. I came down with the flu and was stuck in my room. It suddenly just hit me: “I want to become a fashion designer!”

Still quite fascinating. Leningrad (or St. Petersburg for that matter) changes lifes — I can easily relate.

7. Mealworms compost Styrofoam

Recycling Styrofoam and alike is not easy, and yet there are natural ways to achieve that:

Polystyrene (PS) is generally considered to be durable and resistant to biodegradation. Mealworms (the larvae of Tenebrio molitor Linnaeus) from different sources chew and eat Styrofoam, a common PS product. The Styrofoam was efficiently degraded in the larval gut within a retention time of less than 24 h. Fed with Styrofoam as the sole diet, the larvae lived as well as those fed with a normal diet (bran) over a period of 1 month.

8. McTrain

For those enjoyed reading about the McDonalds airplane in New Zealand, I stumbled upon another mind-blowing part of its history:

The DB allowed McDonald's to refit two of its dining cars for the program, installing deep fryers, coffee machines, soda fountains, water heaters, and multiple walk-ins in a 269 square-foot kitchen—still reportedly more than half the car. After an apparent test period in Switzerland (though there is evidence of a parallel program in that country), the DB allowed the McTrain into service in Winter 1993, assigning it to the country-spanning Hamburg-Berchtesgarden line.

Such a shame it didn't work out.

9. Brawn

There is a traditional Russian dish, called kholodets, which is mostly served during winter (especially as a post-New Year's dish) with a horseradish cream.

It looks like a meaty Jelly-O or a very simplified aspic, which is essentially a savoury gelatin-based meat stock with shredded meat inside.

This dish was mentioned during a chat with someone knowledgeable of the British cuisine, and apparently there is something very similar here as well:

Head cheese or brawn is a cold cut terrine or meat jelly, often made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig (less commonly a sheep or cow), typically set in aspic, that originated in Europe. Usually eaten cold or at room temperature, the dish is, despite the name, not a dairy cheese. The parts of the head used in the dish vary, though commonly do not include the brain, eyes and ears of the animal used. The tongue, and sometimes the feet and heart of the animal may be included; the dish is also made using the trimmings from more commonly eaten cuts of pork and veal, with the addition of gelatin to the stock in order to act as a binding agent. Head cheese may also be made without utilising the flesh from the head of an animal.

I didn't try it yet, and it looks way meatier (I'd say, in kholodets there is usually more stock than meat; here it's the opposite).

Looking forward to it anyway.

10. Negative pH Does Exist

Apparently pH can be lower than 0 and higher than 14:

For example, commercially available concentrated HCl solution (37% by mass) has pH ≈ -1.1, while saturated NaOH solution has pH ≈ 15.0. Hot springs near Ebeko volcano, with naturally occurring HCl and H2SO4, have estimated pH values as low as –1.7. Waters from the Richmond Mine at Iron Mountain, CA, have pH = -3.6.

Not that we face them on daily basis, that's true.

Book of the week

I've already mentioned my newly acquired obsession with coffee; I didn't have a chance to mention the pleasure with which I read the second edition of James Hoffman's "The world atlas of coffee":

It would be impossible to write about modern coffee drinking without discussing Starbucks. The company's roots were in roasting and selling coffee beans from a shop in Seattle, but it was transformed by Howard Schultz into the global phenomenon that we know today. Schultz claimed to be inspired by his travels to Italy, though the modern Starbucks experience would be unrecognizable to a native Italian. Starbucks, and businesses like it, undoubtedly paved the way for the growth in specialty coffee that we see around the world today.

This is one of those books one needs to own in paper to thoroughly enjoy. A big chunk of its value is in illustrations, schemes, and charts, spread across pages as an even crema on top of a freshly pulled espresso shot.

On the note of the quote though, I tend to agree.

It's quite easy to despise a mass-market cup of coffee, and there is nothing wrong with avoiding overly sugar drinks they usually make, but without Starbucks we wouldn't have a choice between Geisha and Yellow Bourbon beans being roasted all over the world.

Next time I bypass one, I probably should at least nod in recognition.

Thank you and see you in a week!

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Cheers! 🍸