Web news editor at Vedomosti, contributing journalist at Tedium etc. Read more about me. This blog is for articles too specific or personal to be published elsewhere.

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As Forbes Cracked Russia Up, I Talked to Local Lemon Experts

Contributing authors are dangerous to any media with a user platform — at least if neglected by the editor.

On Thursday, Lizzy Saxe, a Forbes contributor writing about food and business, submitted an article headlined “Want To Find A Rich Person In Russia? Look For The Lemons.” In the article, Harold Edwards, the CEO of a California-based agricultural company Limoneira expressed his theory of high demand for lemons in Russia. If lemons can’t grow there, he deducted, they should cost a lot, so Russians must use them to “communicate to people that they have the means to be able to afford them.”

Apparently, when I brewed some lemon tea, I was a “wealthy Russian” who “incorporates lemons into my lifestyle.”

The article, while being featured on Forbes’ social media and getting around 25,000 hits by the time of writing, seems to be mostly ignored by the US media. It’s not really a well-researched article to pick up seriously; the piece was based solely on claims of Limoneira’s CEO, with 7 out of 11 paragraphs, the lead one included, featuring him or the company in a positive light.

As the author hadn’t bothered to check whether Edwards was right, the story was widely ridiculed in Russia both on social media and by press outlets. Lemons are, of course, not a “bling of produce” in the country. With the average retail cost of 117.40 rubles per kg in December 2018 (1.74 US$, or around 13 rubles cheaper than a Big Mac), lemons are three times cheaper than in the US, going by US Department of Agriculture’s annual data.

Soviet tradition with imperial roots

While the reasoning was wrong, local analysts confirm the claim which sparked it. According to AB-Centre, an agriculture think tank, Russia is the second biggest importer of lemons, with the top one being the US. With the purchase amount of 213,000 ton in 2018, the sector has not only recovered after the Russian monetary crisis of 2014–2015 but set the all-time record. Analysts note there wasn’t any notable downfall to recover from, though. With price changes not affecting the demand, importers got away with only the slight reduction of the supply.

“The consumption pattern is traditional for Russian culture,” notes Alexei Plugov, AB-Centre’s General Director. “For example, the most popular folk remedy during the flu is to drink lots of lemon tea. It’s similar to tangerines as traditional New Year treats, with most countries not incorporating then into holiday dishes.”

A glass of lemon tea in podstakannik became a staple of train travels in Russia. Credit: Jürg Vollmer, CC BY-SA 3.0

The case for tangerines is worth focusing on a little bit more. For most older Russians, the strong connection between tangerines and New Year celebrations goes back to the Soviet Union, with its short supply to imported fruit. To meet at least some demand for citruses, Russia had to rely on its own resources — or on the resources of other Soviet republics.

Raisa Kulyan, head of the laboratory of fruit crops selection at Russian Research Institute of Floriculture and Subtropical Crops, points to Georgia as the Soviet Union’s main supplier of both lemons and tangerines. Plains of Abkhasia were more suitable for growing lemons on the open field then Krasnodar Krai, the only subtropical region of independent Russia.

“There were more territories, and the subtropical zone was wider. Nowadays, we are limited by Adler and Sochi regions [of Krasnodar Krai],” she says, lamenting the mountainous terrain of Russian subtropics.

The researcher notes we shouldn’t attribute the popularity of lemons in Russia solely to Soviet distribution chains. “Historical background is crucial for their popularity. Not without reason people were growing lemons on their windowsills during the time of Peter the Great,” Kulyan referred to Pavlovo lemonarium near Nizhny Novgorod, in the centre of European Russia.

First mentions of lemons in Russian go beyond the history of the Russian Empire, back to the time of tzars. Domostroy, a 16th-century collection of household rules, mentions recipes and remedies using lemons. Being a popular work, it shows the citrus was not an unwitnessed fruit even for low-ranking nobles.

The quest for Russian lemons

Despite the attempts of local farmers, it’s impossible to stumble upon homegrown lemons in Russian stores. Last year, local manufacturers have just entered the market at the level of the country — as a blip on the chart, with the share less than 0.01%. But Kulyan states more entrepreneurs are interested in growing lemons locally.

According to the scientist, all it takes for lemons to grow is the temperature above 5 °C (41 °F) during the winter — a goal achievable with heated or plastic-sheet greenhouses even in southern Siberia. The most suitable for moderate climate is the Meyer lemon, she says; the low-growing, undemanding cultivar notable for its orange cortex.

Georgiy Siverskiy, an Usbek farmer. Credit: IA Ferghana

In Uzbekistan, a country in Central Asia on the south from Russia, local farmers even adopted them for growing without greenhouses. To shield lemons from cold winds, they grow them in trenches. Bringing them to Russia as “Tashkent lemons,” exporters hope to meet the demand once taken by Spanish and Greek manufacturers barred from selling produce to Russia by economic sanctions. But with a 0.3% share of imported lemons, they have to go a long way — and face Turkey and Argentine keeping more than three-fourths of the production.

To the possible dismay of the head of Limoneira, who claimed Russian favor Californian lemons over any other kind, there was no official import of lemons from the US in both 2017 and 2018.

Add some yellow to a greenback

Joking and being curious simultaneously, some Russians thought Edwards was confused by a Russian vernacular. Popularized in the 1990s, “lemon” means “million” of dollars or rubles in thieves’ slang. With the last syllable stressed, both words sound similar in Russian, with “lemon” being some sort of mangled shortening. According to two philologists reached by a Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, the word first appeared during the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922 accompanied by the depreciation of the ruble. As the Soviet Union collapsed, more people got access to once unimaginable sums of money, reviving the word in process.

The most crucial point right now is, the word got another meaning just for brevity. According to the Leonid Belovinsky, Doctor of History, there was no analogy with actual lemons.

Lemons growing in Bryansk Oblast. Credit: Anatoly Tarantsov, CC BY 3.0

For Russians, lemons might not be metaphorical golden nuggets portrayed by the Forbes’ article, but the country’s fascination with them is worth a deeper look even from within Russia itself. While the article has started just as an exercise in fact checking, it has provided me with a different point of view on a mundane ingredient. From ever-growing supply from abroad to greenhouses in Siberia, Russians’ love for lemons surely goes beyond the imaginary desire to somehow show off.

Meanwhile, Forbes has “corrected” the article “to more accurately reflect social status in Russia” — if the removal of a single paragraph counts as a correction.

The cover photo is composed of “Valencia market – lemons” by Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, and a USSR stamp “Friendship Tree, Sochi with label” (1970), no copyright.

The Russian version of the article is published by Pervoistochnik.

 No comments    190   2019   Features

Writers, Get a Fifteen-Year-Old Mac to Take a Digital Detox

When you spend writing and researching every day for a living, it can be hard to set aside time to do the exact same thing, but for yourself. And when this rare opportunity appears, you want to be as focused as possible.

Shortly after Christmas, at the beginning of Russia’s long public holidays, I’ve tweeted the picture below. It might be a bog-standard New Year post, but there’s a certain oddity in the attached photo: I’ve began 2019 by showing off an iBook G4, made in 2004, not only up and running, but ready for actual work to do on. Indeed, this is the computer I actually work on every time it’s realistically possible, both at home, in the library, or at the café.

These words were typed on this machine, too. But why would I do this, and why would you want to?

A typewriter that’s got ambitions

While I’m keen on old gadgets, I’d be lying if I said they are still as good as they were back on their release date. Sure, every now and then, someone dreams of abandoning a modern phone for a device of yore — the one which holds a charge for a month and doesn’t bother anyone with notifications. The idea, though, falls flat on its face the moment someone actually takes an old Siemens and tries to type a text.

We might live in a crapsack connected world where everyone battles for our data and engagement, but in general, technology did become more capable and easy-to-use. However, since people still feel the urge to distance themselves from modern tech annoyances, there is a market for that. From well-being modes in operating systems to smart feature phones both cheap and premium, a lot of companies want to sell you the idea of a balance between a no-frills approach and modern connectivity options. After all, not being able to go to the Internet, even on weekdays, is just not an option for most of us.

I had no idea an old PowerPC Mac is going to struck the exact balance. What I needed and expected from it is a cheap way to type on the go — a bare minimum for a notebook complimenting a modern desktop PC. The iBook, which was as cheap as a beaten-up Eee PC, was in a reasonable condition and had a fresh battery, and I’d be perfectly fine even if it could only open and save text files.

For some twisted reason, it gave me much more than I expected from a 2004 computer running an OS from 2007. (Could you imagine using Windows Vista on an Intel Pentium M, right now?) Maybe it’s the robustness of Mac OS X, a system I’ve had no prior experience in, or the community trying to keep PowerPC Macs as useful as possible. There is a TenFourFox project which makes an up-to-date web browser based on Firefox, as well as a newer version of WebKit you can patch Safari and other programs with. You won’t get all the bells and whistles of the modern Web, and the performance is a bit poor, but it’s alright for looking things up without messing up with the workflow. I’ve also updated spellchecker dictionaries with cocoAspell, installed Ilya Birman’s keyboard layout for consistency with my PCs, and made a bunch of other tweaks.

But what’s really impressive is how well some things work without any tinkering at all. I’m not even talking about applications with no or few online components, like Pages ‘09 or old builds of f.lux, but about things like iTunes — which still connects to iTunes Store, downloads purchased music and, according to the iBook’s previous owner, translates it via AirPlay. Evernote, a popular note-taking service, managed to shock me with how well its PowerPC Mac client works today — provided you can find the original executable. On its first launch, it politely tells you it’s the last version to support Mac OS X Leopard, and the voice memo recording is disabled on PowerPC, but aside from that, it works and syncs just as you’d expect. It might be even better, as the client doesn’t register towards the limit of clients for the free plan. Even Adobe Digital Edition, as bad as it’s in itself, still allows me to check out books from Internet Archive’s Open Library.

The 4:3 screen makes more sense for doing actual work than the widescreen one. The Verge’s Vlad Savov thinks the same.

Sure, it’s easier to list what iBook G4 can do in 2019 than to name what it cannot — but that’s the entire point. You can browse the Internet, but you can’t procrastinate on YouTube your entire day; you can check your mail, but you’d be hard-pressed to use social media. The elusive middle ground between not being able to do some work and not feeling like you need to do it is here, running on a well-built, laconic hardware. It’s not aluminum PowerBook G4, but it’s nice enough.

Where’s the Nokia Booklet 4G, though?

But no matter how much we would like to see our gadgets work forever, it isn’t going to happen. I expect Evernote to stop working eventually and browser backports to be abandoned — it’s just something you have to keep in mind when talking about software and services. There is a sad tale of a devoted user who kept patching Dropbox client to work on PowerPC Macs but gave up as it kept being updated; “I don’t feel any strength to work with that problem”, they said after almost two years.

The hardware degrades, too, not to mention it’s not really reasonable anymore to carry a 2.2 kg of plastic and silicon everywhere you might want to write. But what to replace it with: a 12-inch MacBook, an iPad Pro, or maybe a 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 – the last one with a decent keyboard?

Each of the options comes with its own weaknesses, but all of them, including the iOS device, are far more capable than their distant predecessor. A testament of technical progress it is, but when we are talking about distraction-free workstations, there is nothing on the market. That means this white, glossy notebook is left without a successor.

Take a look at it — and wait till someone releases a “feature notebook.”

The cover photo by me is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

 No comments    67   2019   Features

Let’s Remember Media PCs and Their Path to Nowhere

If there is one reason we don’t hear the term “post-PC world” as often as we used to, it’s because it is already built. The pendulum of history has swung back, and classic PCs has found themselves in the same position they were up to mid-1990s – as productivity tools or toys for tech enthusiasts. Most of actual “personal computing” now happens in our phones, or, to be more correct, on someone else’s server both phones and PCs get access to.

Nowadays, when a person buys a computer, they usually have specific tasks in mind which they are going to use a PC for. It might be gaming, media editing, or even a simple word processing; the point is not the complexity of a task, but the fact this task is actually defined and formulated. While PCs are as multipurpose as they were for decades, few people or companies make the purchase decision thinking, “I’m going to make my computer do everything.

But people used to do so — and tech companies had built the entire category of goods just on this promise. Both users and manufacturers tried to make a PC a central home appliance, putting it in a fancy but still oversized set-top box and calling it a “home theater PC” or “digital entertainment center.” The idea was to replace all specialized media appliances in a household, such as DVD players and jukeboxes, with a computer a little bit friendlier than the one on a desk.

Of mices and remotes

By the year 2000, the computing industry has been toying with the “media PC” concept for quite a while. CD-ROMs allowed distributing digitized audio, video, and photos, which led to the popularity of the concept of “multimedia.” While computers could play audio CDs just fine, the general media experience could not yet be directly compared with the one provided by VCRs and Hi-Fi equipment. Instead, multimedia applications differentiated themselves by combining different media into unified sets of data. Classic examples of those datasets are CD-ROM encyclopedias: titles like Microsoft Encarta mixed up text articles with illustrations, bits of audio, video clips, and even interactive 3D models.

At that point, multimedia wasn’t going to disrupt any industries, no matter how hard creators of CD+G had probably hoped for that. Things changed when it became possible to rip music CDs, compress the data tenfold, and keep the audio on a hard drive track by track. Creating custom playlists, once a tedious process only possible with magnetic media, became essential for music consumption and, several years later, led to world-shattering iTunes Store “pay per song” business model.

That’s when PCs companies started making their first media computers. Such devices as iPAQ Music Center and HP de100c were made just to rip CDs, store music and, for some added value, play Internet radio. Neither of them or their direct successors became even remotely popular: just like Internet appliances, they were seen as a vastly inferior option to whatever cheap computer your favorite retailer was stocking.

The archived TechTV clip shows Compaq iPAQ Music Center in action.

Things notably changed in 2003, when DVD drives for PCs became widely available. Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t DVD which sparked the media PC boom. While the desire for high-quality video playback fueled it, what really set the trend were “barebone PC” configurations introduced mostly by Taiwanese OEMs. Barebones were partially assembled computing platforms, including everything but RAM, a hard drive, and, in some cases, a processor. Notably, most barebones were introduced in a compact form factor which heavily resembled ordinary jukeboxes. For DIY enthusiasts, fed up with PC towers as Apple popularized all-in-one machines, this was a breath of fresh air.

Barebone computers – most notably, Intel NUC models, – are still relatively popular, and those who want to build a computer from scratch can now choose from a variety of compact cases and motherboards. But you won’t find anymore a barebone as similar to a media center as MSI MegaPC. Being one of the first configurations of its kind, it had a front-panel display, could play music with actual PC turned off, and really didn’t look like a computer at all. Capturing the design trends of the mid-2000s with its orange-and-silver motifs, it managed to look just like Sony Ericsson Walkman phones introduced two years later. With all its noughties zeitgeist, it, frankly, still doesn’t look bad, unlike most computers not designed in Cupertino.

The system included a floppy drive faceplate to replace the card reader with. How’s that for a media rig?

While PC building community was excited about attractive hardware, Microsoft had its own plans on the software side of things – but they also craved for tighter control over the specifications of media PCs. Released in 2002 and updated over the course of three years, Windows XP Media Center Edition was a modified desktop OS with several new applications bundled – most notably, Windows Media Center, a media hub designed specifically for a TV screen. While being heavily marketed, Windows XP MCE was only available to select few licensed manufacturers. The list of companies and countries expanded release after release, but still, few official Windows media PCs were built. As for power users, they were left relying on third-party or homegrown solutions.

The shell itself, while being rather nice and polished, wasn’t as exciting as the hardware made for it. For the first time, Microsoft set the specification for a Windows media remote, complete with a green, bubbly “flag” button for invoking the signature ten-feet UI. Following the standard, media center manufacturers made their own remotes to suit the style of the specific machine, but there was also some first-party hardware, including the keyboard with the integrated remote and pointing stick mouse. Microsoft has also pushed for creating Media Center Extenders, set-top boxes for streaming from a Windows XP MCE machine, and released software extenders for the original Xbox and Xbox 360.

Microsoft’s two-handed Remote Keyboard got one Genius lookalike and no successors.

Microsoft might have been disappointed with the market performance of Windows XP MCE, as it made the next version of Media Center, released alongside Windows Vista, available as a part of two of four retail versions. That version of Media Center, as well as the updated one for much more popular Windows 7, became the introduction to ten-feet UI for many people, especially as notebooks became prevalent and HDMI made connecting them to TVs a breeze.

There is another feature Microsoft tried to make a standard, but to put it bluntly, it was such a mess, no one mentions it since. Windows SideShow was a Windows Vista technology for auxiliary displays on computer cases. Looking back on barebone PCs, it made sense to make a system-wide standard for their front panels, but Microsoft decided to push for always-on second screens on notebooks instead. The idea was to let users read the notifications by looking on a two-line screen on a notebook side (back when they were thick enough to put a display there) or use it as a media player with the lid closed. Aside from that, developers have envisioned other use cases for Windows SideShow, including connected photo frames, detachable media players, and mobile phone sync. None of them, for some reason, included what was already done by barebone PC manufacturers, and other ones were just too silly to be adopted en masse.

Asus W5fe was the only notebook brave enough to feature a SideShow panel.

One of Microsoft’s media efforts became popular because of notebooks, the other was rightfully ridiculed. Either way, it’s notebooks and the expanding mobility of computing which marked the end of media PCs. At first, people realized they don’t want their computers to be near a TV, on a desk, or in any fixed positions. Once the smartphones and mobile Internet services became hugely popular, they wondered why it has to be PC at all. As of home appliances, they become more capable and self-sufficient and caught up with PCs in features which mattered – not in the number of errors, conflicts, and prerequisite actions.

We should have seen them not coming

As the PC world waged a war on home appliances, Apple – which, in 2004, was making computers which weren’t PCs – introduced its own ten-feet UI, Front Row. Compared to Windows Media Center, it was dull, did not have DVR capabilities, and was seen as a reason to bundle that fancy iPod-like magnetic remote with the latest iMac. Unimaginable for its time, Microsoft’s solution had more eye candy than Apple’s one. It turned out to be more prolific, too: while Windows Media Center hanged around till the release of Windows 10, Front Row was dropped four years earlier. Even SideShow outlived it by two years.

Isn’t it strange the company which created the iPod and iTunes was playing catch up with Microsoft on a media field? Looking back, it seems they knew what they were doing and what can be left half-baked. After all, while Microsoft tried to counter iPods with pocket versions of Windows Media Center, the House of Jobs evolved them into the iPhone, with well-known consequences for the entire tech world. Netflix, Spotify, and other streaming services finished the job and eradicated the concept of personal media collections in every household.

Media PCs promised entertainment strongholds for content feudals. What people wanted is a receiver.

 No comments    75   2019   Features
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