by Vadim Drobinin

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

19.01.2021 (read in browser)

On measuring to manage

These days I am quite obsessed with measuring things, from blood pressure to weight to the time I spend on the most routine things.

It's quite difficult to manage something without measuring it beforehand, and even though I am not yet ready to log all my daily activities in 15 minute chunks, I would love to get more insights into how my average day is set up.

To make it simpler I went for this tiny personalised gadget:

It has open API and BLE protocols, a few apps, and a way to export data; each side represents an activity in my life, so now it is just about remembering to turn it to another side at the right moment.

Just the process of tracking time, even without looking at the data (yet), bring certain amount of comfort from knowing that it is not getting wasted, as it is being recorded.

In the movie we watched recently, it was said that

Time is the only true unit of measure. It gives proof to the existence of matter. Without time, we don't exist.

This is very true. By recording time, I gather proofs of my very own existence, and that is quite a fun adventure on its own.

On that note, without wasting any more time,

Things I enjoyed reading

1. The Dream Job That Wasn’t by @cliomiso

For those who dreamt to became a pilot or a zookeeper, a nice set of insights into lifes of those who managed to pull the tricks.

Caroline Lange, a cookbook recipe tester, feels similarly lucky that she loves what she does. “My friend says it’s like a rom-com job, which I think is really accurate,” Lange said. “You don’t even realize it exists until you meet someone who does it.” But testing recipes isn’t quite like living in a Nancy Meyers film—Lange said that the majority of her job isn’t actually cooking, but schlepping groceries. It’s more physically demanding than people realize (she’s on her feet for much of the day), and since the gigs are freelance, Lange has no paid sick days and is insured on the most basic state exchange plan, which comes with an enormous deductible.

I guess if I were to write about pros and cons of being a developer, I'd mostly complain about being scared by the Internet of things and a lack of good memes in the last decade.

2. TV Detector Vans Once Prowled the Streets of England by Lewin Day

For those not aware of how British TV works, here is the trick: all folks with access to a broadcast radio need to pay for an annual license, or face huge fines. The money go towards funding BBC and their channels.

We don't have any broadcast access (and don't have a TV), so we don't pay anything. However, the BBC runs enforcement operations under the TV Licencing trade name to find those who claim that they don't watch TV and yet still break the law by dialing in:

Alternatively, a search warrant may be granted on the basis of evidence gleaned from a TV detector van. Outfitted with equipment to detect a TV set in use, the vans roam the streets of the United Kingdom, often dispatched to addresses with lapsed or absent TV licences. If the van detects that a set may be operating and receiving broadcast signals, TV Licencing can apply to the court for the requisite warrant to take the investigation further.

However, as these vans were deployed in 50s, they're quite outdated, so now they consider using Machine Learning and light from windows to map it to the expected light from TV programms.

Now that sounds quite cool.

3. HR is not your friend, and other things I think you should know by rachelbythebay

If there is a single thing to learn about working at any company, it is here:

HR is not your friend. HR is there to support the company. If you are not the company, they are not going to be there to support you.

I was lucky enough to never cross the line where an HR's distanced politeness would turn into something more dangerous, and yet I never had any illusions about the side they're playing on, and never had any hopes about them resolving the problems I face within companies, especially if these problems involve higher ranks.

4. Navalny Versus Putin Is an Epic, and Existential, Battle by Leonid Bershidsky

Talking about politics is an odd afair. It rarely makes sense, and when it does there is usually no need for such talk in the first place. However, this piece is a great insight into one's qualia and I enjoyed reading it regardless of the terrible events it is related to.

Emigration has worked for my family — but the Navalnys were firm that whatever happened, their work and their fight were at home. The courage they showed had no undertones of martyrdom or self-promotion; rather, it felt like a casual but unbending sense of purpose. It was as matter-of-fact as it was shorn of any false hope. It was the kind of courage of which I don’t think I’m capable.

5. That XOR Trick by Florian Hartmann

One of my favourite things in programming, which always feels like magic: the exclusive or operator's magic.

While it seems unreasonable to expect the XOR solutions in interviews, it is quite fun to figure out how they work. As it turns out, they are all based on the same fundamental trick, which we will derive in a bottom-up way in this post.

My favourite one was always the in-place swapping (how to swap two variables without introducing the third one). I learnt about it twelve years ago, and have been fascinated ever since.

6. Reginald Foster, Vatican Latinist Who Tweeted in the Language, Dies at 81 by Margalit Fox

A beautiful obituary to a Vatican latinist:

Reginald Foster, a former plumber’s apprentice from Wisconsin who, in four decades as an official Latinist of the Vatican, dreamed in Latin, cursed in Latin, banked in Latin and ultimately tweeted in Latin, died on Christmas Day at a nursing home in Milwaukee. He was LXXXI.

He also invented the majority of modern Latin words, e.g assula minutula electrica ("tiny amber wood chip") for a microchip and translated interfaces of all ATMs in Vatican into Latin.

A hero we didn't deserve.

7. The Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino

Quite an unusual way to describe the changes that happen to someone with an illness.

Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.

And I must say, a very powerful one.

8. On being 34 by @orta

I've been reading orta's summaries for more than a decade now, and this is one of a very few annual reviews I am looking forward to.

In 2020, I started to feel more wary of consolidation in technology and its pace of change - I work at a trillion dollar company, so I dig the potential for hypocracy but I’d be whole-heartedly in favour of breaking up most of big-tech. I’m burned out on the idea of venture capital, I think of it now as a quick cheat to beat competition with the goal of monopolization. I want smaller companies, I want smaller tech created by fewer people with less aggressive goals and engagement strategies. I want mature things that do less and don’t need to change so much. I’d like a more careful approach to technology.

They also get longer and more thoughtful every year, so I will bar myself from summarising it and would advise to enjoy the post in full.

9. Anatomy of a CNC Router by @mferraro89

Owning a CNC router became a dream of mine since I explored the beauty (and versatility) of DIY.

However, buying one for a rented apartment in a foreign (yet) country requires way more courage than I have, hence the only option would be to build it from scratch.

There are many components to consider when designing your CNC router. From the frame to the linear actuators to the cutting tool itself, at every step of the way remember that rigidity is king.

And that where if I were to pick a single post to have access to on my DIY journey, I would pick this one.

10. The World’s Oldest Story? by Ray Norris

Pretty much every nation has a story after The Pleiades (aka the Seven Sisters) from the constellation Taurus the Bull.

How come there are only six stars and is there a way to guesstimate the story's age by the time when there were all seven stars?

But if we take what we know about the movement of the stars and rewind 100,000 years, Pleione was further from Atlas and would have been easily visible to the naked eye. So 100,000 years ago, most people really would have seen seven stars in the cluster.

And this pretty much explains the similarity of Greek and Aboriginal stories, even though they were so distant from each other in time and place.

Things I didn't know last Tuesday

1. Hungry men exposed to blue light are sensitive to Earth's magnetic field

The secret of the sixth sense and an ability to navigate without a compass has been found a few years ago:

The orientation was reproduced under blue light but was abolished under a blindfold or a longer wavelength light (> 500 nm), indicating that blue light is necessary for magnetic orientation.

So seems like it works only for hungry men exposed to blue light, for example those who forget to eat regularly and spend all their time in front of a computer.

Oh wait.

2. Ablaut reduplication

Somehow we always say tick-tock but never tock-tick. And eat a Kit Kat bar, not a Kat Kit one. And bells always ring "ding-dang-dong" and not something else... but why is that?

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

3. Bees get addicted to caffeine

Last week I've been looking forward to trying coffee flowers. Well, I did, and that was an odd but rather pleasant experience. Quite mellow in taste, slightly heavier body than tea or herb infusions, and yet quite flavourful.

Researching about these flowers, I've found out that they contain caffeine too, and this is one of the reasons bees keep coming back instead of exploring other flowers in the area:

The greatest effect was seen in the long-term memory experiment, with three times as many bees remembering the scent and sticking out their tongues for the caffeine reward 24 hours later, and twice as many recalling it 72 hours later.

Caffeine changes how neurons in the bee's brain respond to learning and memory tasks, Wright said. It causes cells to have a stronger reaction to sensory input, a change that also leads to long-term potentiation, a key mechanism underlying memory formation.

So far it is not known whether it ameliorates human memory in the same way or not, but I have high hopes.

4. Old Twelvey

There is a rather famous misconception about Russians celebrating Christmas the same way Europeans do that. In fact, the Orthodox Christmas is shifted, and doesn't really count as a festive activity even by the believers: more as a chance to queue for a bottle of holy water when it's -30C outside.

Also the calendar shift lead to a concept of Orthodox New Year, which is sometimes a thing in Russia and people tend to cook something special for the 14th of January Eve.

However, the same issue is faced by British folks celebrating wassailing:

The Wassailing celebrations generally take place on the Twelfth Night, 5th January, however the more traditional still insist in celebrating it on ‘Old Twelvey’, or the 17th January, the correct date; that is before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar messed things up in 1752.

Aye-aye, so much in common.

5. Oxford "-er"

A funny story about one of the most wide-spread types of slang in the England:

… began late in 1875 and came from Rugby School… By this process, the original word is changed and gen[erally] abridged; then ‘-er’ is added.
Thus, ‘memorial’ > memugger, the ‘Radcliffe’ Camera > ‘the Radder… Occ[asionally] the word is pluralised, where the origin ends in ‘s’: as in ‘Adders,’ Addison’s Walk, ‘Jaggers,’ Jesus College. This -er has got itself into gen[erally] upper-middle-class s[lang].

This pretty much explains why a bunch of oxonians at my previous company used to convert "Jeremy" into "Jezza".

And here is how the word "soccer" was born:

So, association gets shortened to its –soc- component, and, with the addition of –er, we get soccer. It was variously pronounced as socca (a common feature for British English, known as non-rhoticity) and spelled as socker. Why soc? Well, otherwise we’d be playing assers or some such.

6. Italian Wedding Soup

One of the oldest known recipes, which dates back to the first century:

The general concensus among the food people is that Italian wedding soup (originally known as Minestra Maritata or Pignato Grasso) has nothing to do with wedding ceremonies. This particular "marriage" (maritata is the Italian word for marriage) is between vegetables...or...depending upon the region?...sometimes pork and vegetables, in soup

Also check out the main page of the website, they have a timeline of first records for both ingredients in recipes, some of which go back thousands of years.

7. Sin Eater

Beautiful rituals of the past:

...the family grieved, placed bread on the chest of the deceased, and called for a man to sit in front of the body. The family of the deceased watched as this man, the local professional sin eater, absorbed the sins of the departed’s soul.

The family who hired the sin eater believed that the bread literally soaked up their loved one’s sins; once it had been eaten, all the misdeeds were passed on to the hired hand.

Also it is pretty much the worst freelance gig I ever heard of.

8. Christopher Walken's accent

I recently learnt a story behind the odd way one of my favourite actors speak from movie to movie:

He was born in Queens at a time most of his neighbors — and the customers in his parents' bakery — were immigrants. English was a second language to most of them, and those were the first voices he heard.

"Both my parents had heavy accents," he said. (His father was German and his mother was from Glasgow, according to The Guardian.) "It's a rhythm thing — people who speak English where they are have to hesitate and think of the right word. And I think it rubbed off."

9. Paludarium Tachiko & Yasutoshi

This is what happens if bonsai gets to grow in an encapsulated environmental system:

Paludarium, a small conservatory invented in England in the 19th century, is a plant protection machine that has been later exhibited at the Paris Expo and such. People placed a precious plant shipped from foreign lands inside a glass-walled container, and appreciated watching its growing cycles at different lands and at their home far away from the plant’s own home.

10. Brompton Road Tube station

Apparently there was a Tube station between Knightsbridge and South Kensington on the Piccadilly line.

Another one that went because hardly anyone used it, especially after a new, southern entrance to Knightsbridge ate into its catchment area. Like Down Street – and in contrast, one suspects, to City Road – this was because the locals were far too well-heeled to consider travelling by Tube.

Since it is removed, the gap between Knightsbridge and South Kensignton is one of the longest in Zone 1.

Book of the week

Over the last years I've been talking a lot about my attitude towards Computer Science, from utter rejection to obsessed interest.

There are two parts to it, which never cease to amaze me: how to enlighten a newcomer to explore the depths of algorithms, and how to consciously apply the same algorithms to my day-to-day life.

Brian Christian tackles on both issues in Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, namely talking about caching:

You have a problem. Your closet is overflowing, spilling shoes, shirts, and underwear onto the floor. You think, “It’s time to get organized.” Now you have two problems.
Specifically, you first need to decide what to keep, and second, how to arrange it. Fortunately, there is a small industry of people who think about these twin problems for a living, and they are more than happy to offer their advice.
On what to keep, Martha Stewart says to ask yourself a few questions: “How long have I had it? Does it still function? Is it a duplicate of something I already own? When was the last time I wore it or used it?” On how to organize what you keep, she recommends “grouping like things together,” and her fellow experts agree.

This whole book is a fascinating attempt at both explaining the basics of the logic behind building blocks of any program, but also a very deep dive into living a better life by using a more robust approach towards one's decisions.

Thank you and see you in a week!

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Cheers! 🍸