by Vadim Drobinin

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

15.03.2022 (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.

On letters

Here is something I've learnt this week.

A great Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, once wrote an essay about a travelling Israeli who doesn't feel as a Jew while in Israel:

[...] you can walk around all day under the blazing sun in a sleeveless t-shirt and feel just like a goy: a little trance, a little opera, a good book by Bulgakov, a glass of Irish whiskey.

However, in a trip abroad this perception instantly changes:

It can be a seemingly innocent comment on the street, graffiti of a Star of David and some unclear slogan on a crumbling wall [...]. Then the questions begin: is this truth or phobia?

I can't really say that I feel the same, but I do understand the author way better than I used to.

It doesn't matter how much you brag about being the citizen of the world, the connection with your place of birth feels even stronger when you hate everything that is being done in its name.

In 1826, Alexander Pushkin wrote to a friend:

I certainly despise my motherland from head to toe, yet still I am vexed when a foreigner shares that sentiment.

It was said in an exile and yet two hundred years later didn't really lose much of its sense.

Letters, especially the old ones, provide surprising reassurance in these unprecedented times.

Here is from another one, by a young poet Paul Celan to a Swiss writer Max Rychner, right after the World War II:

I will tell you how difficult it is as a Jew to write poems in German. When my poems are published they will no doubt also reach Germany and - let me say the horror - the hand that will open my book has perhaps shaken the hand of the one who murdered my mother... And it could even get more horrible...

But this is my fate: to have to write German poems. And if poetry is my fate - and here I thank you for affirming this - then I am pleased to be the occasion for your beautiful parable of the burst spell [...]

In the end, newsletters are not that far from letters too.

Things I enjoyed reading

1. How To Do Less by Alex Turek

You'd probably know the answer even without reading the whole post, but the author takes their time to explain the benefits of saying "No" as early as possible.

At some point in my career, years back, a piece of feedback I received was to switch my mentality to a more positive one, and learn to start sentences with "Yes" rather than "No".

I actually ignored it completely and that's still the hill I am willing to die on: the earlier you explain why something can't happen, the more nerves will be saved for all parties involved.

As early as you hear anybody else’s plans that involve your team doing something new, interject with a clear No. Interrupt the conversation and tell them their plan is going to fail if it depends on your work. Saying “we’ll do this later” is not enough - you have to show all the things that come in front of their ask, and tell them they aren’t getting what they want, when they want it. If someone isn’t at least a little disappointed, they didn’t hear no. Keep saying it now and in the future.

That being said, businesses rarely need people who'd create more problems for them – they usually need those who could solve such problems. That doesn't mean you should agree with everything.

2. How a macOS bug could have allowed for a serious phishing attack against users by @_inside

A really curious vulnerability (luckily fixed by now) built around phishing potential within the actual macOS:

“But what about two-factor authentication?”, you might be asking. A sophisticated attacker could devise a system to try to authenticate your credentials on a machine under their control, cause a two-factor code to appear on your device, and convince you to type this code into the panel. This would send that code to the attacker, who would then gain access to pretty much all the data in your Apple account.

I always enjoy such stories, and especially the ones with bug bountry happy ends. Well done!

3. The Drunk Men I Drive Around Every Night by @ishyPeterJ

An interesting article about both research and action of working for a ride-sharing apps late in the night, when people are leaving bars:

During the day, I sometimes pick up other Lyft and Uber drivers. The ones who do the drunk runs talk tough, and they laugh when I ask about the state of the passengers they pick up from bars at closing time. They use a meme I hear over and over from both passengers and other drivers: “Better off in the back seat of my car than on the road.” They speak with pride of the “service” they’re performing. When I ask whether they have any qualms about enabling binge drinking, they shrug it off and say, “That’s where the money is.”

At the same time there must be certain parts of American culture I don't understand. The author mentions bartenders who might end their shift and work as a driver right after. I hardly imagine folks here in the UK doing that, even if we ignore all after-shift cleanup.

4. Why Dark and Light is Complicated in Photographs by Aaron Hertzmann

This is a great (and full of images) look into the complexity of controlling lightness and darkness in photos:

The photographer adjusted light and dark extensively, to highlight the subject, to create a much greater sense of contrast, and to enhance detail in the photograph. Such images reflect hours of darkroom labor, where the photographer would carefully expose parts of the negative more and other parts less, in a process called dodging and burning.

I especially enjoyed the illustration of the aformentioned adjustment process. That's what we've lost with the invention of image processing software.

5. The legendary survival story of Sir Ernest Shackleton by Patrick McCarthy

I am slightly disappointed there is no movie based on this story (yet?).

Shackleton would make three more attempts to rescue his crew — first with a ship borrowed from Uruguay, then with one from a British expatriate in Argentina, and finally with one from the Chilean government. The first two attempts were blocked by ice, but the last attempt succeeded. On August 30th, 1916, Shackleton rescued the stranded men.

And there is obviously more to it. For example, photos have survived only because the crew's photographer managed to rescue the camera from a sinking ship.

6. What Makes a Great Opening Line? by Allegra Hyde

Great first impressions work not only with people but also books, stories, and so on. But what is the difference between a book that captures your attention from the very first line and a book that doesn't?

By “clarity,” I mean the ability of a first sentence to give readers an initial hand-hold for place and/or time and/or character and/or plot. Clarity is essential for a first sentence because, at the start of a story or novel—barring whatever information a reader might have encountered on the jacket copy or in reviews—the reader’s mental theater is a void. An unlit stage. A nothingness. Every word in that first sentence is an opportunity to shine a light on what is to come—to give a reader enough information to stabilize them in some degree of who and where and what the story is about.

This is not the only criteria though, but I was happy to notice that some of the rules I already stand by.

7. A History of the Chicago Hot Dog by finedininglovers

I haven't been to Chicago yet, so most of the hot dogs I tried "in the wild" were in New York. Probably should have traveled further instead:

Hot dogs in Chicago are never served with ketchup. That is an inviolable rule. Plain, sharp, smooth mustard is essential. Not Dijon, not something grainy, just yellow mustard.

Ketchup is disdained by those who believe that doing things correctly comes from doing simple things right - ketchup is too sweet and would disrupt the harmonious balance of other flavours. On the other hand, yellow mustard, a little sweet, a little spicy and just a little bit tangy, was made for sausages - the distillation of the entire Chicago dog into one ingredient.

I usually skip ketchup as well, but for a bunch of different reasons. Mayo works great with the mustard though.

8. How on earth I became an entrepreneur by @searchbound

This is a fun story of competition turned into revenge against corporations. That's what I'd definitely do once I am properly settled.

I’d stay on-board, use the privilege of employment and study every aspect of their operation. Paid, ‘free education’ sorta. And when new opportunities popped up elsewhere, I’d jump ship without a thought. My lizard brain would subtly whisper “got you first”; but I realized that was petty. These were the rules they created; I just began playing along.

Might be the survivorship bias though, so take it with a grain of salt. It won't necessarily turn you into entrepreneurs as well.

9. Why is it so hard to buy things that work well? by @danluu

A great, albeit rhetoric question.

There are definitely things that work well: as many good things we don't notice them until they disappear.

At the same time outsourcing is hard and is rarely worth it:

Support, using a standard script supplied to them by Amazon, told me that I should contact them again three days after the package was marked as delivered because couriers often mark packages as delivered without delivering them, but they often deliver the package within a few days. Amazon knew that the courier service they were using didn't really even try to deliver packages4 promptly and the only short-term mitigation available to them was to tell support to tell people that they shouldn't expect that packages have arrived when they've been marked as delivered.

So how come companies that want something to be done well need to do it themselves? And is there a blue ocean for aspiring entrepreneurs?

10. No other profession trivialises their profession to the degree of software by @geoffreyhuntley

The title is actually true.

These days software engineers tend to persuade everyone that building software is a very simple process.

It rarely is.

We speak from a perspective of people with either too little or too much experience. The former don't yet understand how many things could go wrong, and the latter think that those scenarios are so trivial everyone else is already aware and is working on fixing them.

In fact we wouldn't have these salaries if it was that simple.

Over the last decade, there has been an insatiable appetite for people with any software development skills and unfortunately, the supply of apprentices has outstripped that of master craftsmen which has put the software industry on a path of normalizing the practice of inexperienced people being led by other inexperienced people.

Worth noting that getting into software development is still very easy. But that's a good thing.

Things I didn't know last Tuesday

1. Tea oxidation affects caffeine

I already knew that tea varies by its oxidation levels, but didn't expect that oxidised tea (e.g black) has less caffeine.

Tea oxidation also affects caffeine content, which affects bitterness. Unlike catechins, processing tea leaves does not turn caffeine into new, less bitter molecules. Instead, the process used to halt oxidation removes caffeine from tea leaves, which reduces their overall bitterness. When farmers roast tea, a white powdery substance appears on the outside of the leaf. That’s caffeine. This is also why teas that have been highly processed have less caffeine than less processed tea.

The fact that caffeine removal also reduces bitternes is quite unexpected as well.

2. Regal Stir

This sounds like a fun technique I will be trying out soon:

The solution came in the form of an unorthodox technique—stirring the drink with a piece of orange peel. It’s a practice akin to the regal shake, which involves adding a swath of citrus to the cocktail shaker; both add nuanced aromatics and essential oils from the peel by incorporating it into the body of the drink instead of having it sit on top.

I wonder if the oils should be expressed right into the stirring glass though, or if the peel is meant to be used as is.

3. Ethical Foie Gras

I was pretty sure that making foie gras involves feeding birds against their will. Apparently that's not true at all:

There is a Spanish producer, Pateria de Sousa, that makes an exquisite foie without gavage by laying out lots and lots of figs, acorns, lupini beans, and olives for their geese to eat in fall. The Spanish foie is not as large as French force-fed foie, but it did win a blind taste test in France in 2006.

So given enough food, all geese will end up fitting for a foie gras. It's just in the wild they rarely get so much food unless they're very lucky.

4. Sultanate of Women

This must have been a great period of time?

The Sultanate of Women was a period of extraordinary political influence exerted by wives and mothers of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire.

Seems like it was at least a relatively calm one.

5. Molotov bread baskets

Somehow I never thought that the Molotov cocktail has something to do with a Soviet diplomat:

When Molotov claimed in radio broadcasts that they were not bombing but rather delivering food to the starving Finns, the Finns started to call the air bombs Molotov bread baskets. Soon they responded by attacking advancing tanks with "Molotov cocktails," which were "a drink to go with the food".

The etymology is oddly self-explanatory.

6. Tomato growing records

Douglas Smith from Stanstead Abbotts, Hertfordshire, grew 1,269 tomatoes on a single truss last September, a feat which has just been verified by Guinness World Records.

7. Brandolini's law

There is this beautiful law I will remember every time someone claims something untrue:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than is needed to produce it

Given the modern Internet it would save me hours of time at least.

8. Interstellar the movie's research into wormholes led to three publications

Imagine the dedication of the movie crew?

Thorne described the accretion disk of the black hole as "anemic and at low temperature—about the temperature of the surface of the sun," allowing it to emit appreciable light, but not enough gamma radiation and X-rays to threaten nearby astronauts and planets. The resulting visual effects provided Thorne with new insight into the gravitational lensing and accretion disks surrounding black holes, resulting in the publication of three scientific papers.

Such a shame not that many companies hire programmers to consult on their movies. If there any though shoot me a message – I have a few ideas better than zooming into setellite photos until there is a readable car plate.

9. Idiot plot

A handy concept to explain something in the story.

In literary criticism, an idiot plot is one which is "kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot," and where the story would quickly end, or possibly not even happen, if this were not the case.

Luckily most of the books I read are a bit more thought-through.

10. Nguyen

There a few names I hear quite often and yet seems like in Vietnam there is an even bigger problem:

It is estimated that there are around 100 family names in common use, but some are far more common than others. The name Nguyễn is estimated to be the most common (40%).

Even though that's the surname part of the name as far as I understand, I wonder how hard it is for folks at school to shout to a friend.s

Book of the week

At some point in the past I linked to a research on how plating of dishes improves their taste.

This approach is used by pretty much all Michelin-starred chefs, but to my knowledge only Dominique Crenn wrote a book about various ways of ameliorating flavours through better presentation, more thought-through menus and so on in her 's Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste:

Perhaps the most controversial decision I made in those early days was to subtitle the restaurant “Poetic Culinaria.”
What does that mean? It means that the experience of dining at Atelier Crenn should mirror the experience of an evening immersed in poetry, and that each dish should contribute to the meaning of the meal in the way that a line of poetry conveys a layer of significance to a poem. Not everyone reads poetry, but everyone eats, and everyone can be touched by an image, whether it is found in a book or on a plate.
I want the food at Atelier Crenn to delight the palate the way a poem delights the ear, but beyond the pure pleasure principle, I want the restaurant to communicate on an emotional, spiritual, intellectual level. That is the meaning of poetic culinaria.

There are only a few menu examples in the book, but they're actual poems, where every line represents a dish.

As someone who did a fair share of menus (albeit only cocktail ones so far), I can tell how hard it is to come up with a name. Coming up with poetry must be even harder, but then it probably adds an extra level of complexity and understanding to both sides of the process.

This also a great food for thought: what would my dinner menu look like? And what would be the guiding spirit of it in the long-term?

Thank you and see you in a week!

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Cheers! 🍸