The best things I have ever bought online

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Without even realizing it, I recently blew through the 1,000 order benchmark on Aliexpress, which is quite worrisome considering that I was only at about 500 orders when I penned this entry last year.

Much of that activity relates to orders for my upcoming wedding, which has also seen me graduate to be among the B2B buyers of this world and begin dealing directly with suppliers on Alibaba. You know, things like custom t-shirts, mass orders of confetti, kaftans, and other such curiosities that one can scarcely get married without. En passant, I must say that learning incoterms and the basic operation of the customs system has been quite an experience as I deftly move pallets-full of custom napkins and table flags between the Far East and the Nearer one.

My outlandish embrace of Alibaba, Aliexpress, eBay, and Amazon has less to do with an online shopping addiction (okay, it might have something to do with that), and more with an increasingly fervent belief in my lifelong maxim that: “whatever can be bought online, must be bought online.” Seeing how efficiently Amazon Lockers work on a recent trip to the US only reaffirmed for me the enormous efficiency of e-commerce.

I like to tell those curious enough to ask a few things about my online shopping habits.

1: A large amount of my worldly belongings come from China at this point (I will leave discussion about the ethical dimension surrounding that to another day). This, of course, lends a decidedly Oriental flavor to wherever I inhabit. A visiting friend recently referred to my apartment as an ‘Aliexpress palace’. I am not sure whether it was so intended, but I took it as an enormous complement.

2: If I could buy onions or beer online, I unreservedly would (sadly, vanilla Amazon has still yet to come to these parts much less AmazonFresh).

3: That I am continuously working towards being at a point where everything I own or consume is bought online, but for various reasons — chief among them logistics and concerns about the safety of cosmetics and other such items — that is not currently practicable.

When I reflect upon a latest round of acquisitions (and at this point, merchandise for the wedding is pouring in at a rather astonishing rate), I often observe how I can never predict what will truly become indispensable and what will fall into the category of “simply more stuff”.

With that out of the way, here is the rather oddball collection of items that have brought me the most utility and enjoyment over the years.

1: Etymotic IEMs

I’ll start with what gave me the inspiration to jot this down at an hour of the early morning that I should probably be asleep at.

I recently set up a podcast to provide some technical guidance to fellow small business owners (have I mentioned that I assiduously avoid using the ‘f’ word; the one that begins with ‘f’ and ends in ‘lance’, that is?).

To immediately captivate my audience, I dived straight down into one of the burning issues of our time: how can noise-adverse writers (such as the author) remain focused on their craft in the face of the sort of merciless noise pollution I have been subjected to for much of the past year? What else could better grab the attention of a listenership?

The answer, I posit, is the Etymotic line of In Ear Monitors (IEMs) which have amassed a cult-like following among audiophiles the world over.

Whenever somebody waxes lyrical about the incredible noise isolation on their pair of > $500 Bose QuiteComfort headphones, I simultaneously — and quite hypocritically — silently judge them for spending that much on headphones and also try to refrain from subjecting them to a laconic explanation about how Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) systems were not designed to compensate against continuously modulating audio sources such as the human voice.

Actually, I think QCs have their place (can one afford them) but it’s still pretty amazing that the unrivaled passive noise isolation that an Etymotic with triple flange tips provides exceeds that of any other manufacturer, including Shure. I make that comparison from experience, although I have never owned my own QCs.

Currently, incredibly noisy roadworks are taking place outside my apartment involving the near-continuous operation of some sort of saw apparatus. It is beyond fantastic that my MC5s and Brain.fm are all that are needed to completely obliterate that horrible sound. I have my qualms about Etymotic’s customer service (in my experience, they have an unfortunate habit of forgetting to respond to emails for weeks at a time), but at this moment in time I feel like writing them a letter of gratitude. This post will have to suffice in lieu of that.

2: All Turkish coffee supplies

Turkish coffee, liberally spiced with green cardamom, is the beloved elixir that keeps me productive — or at least operating — during the unkind stretches of hours that I am told one must put in as a self-employed individual. It is also the fluid that drove me to the inescapable conclusion that the world must know about my online shopping habits and which have been my best purchases by penning this post — and that said post must be finished before bed-time. Bless caffeine!

My opinions about coffee are almost as strident as my thoughts on the superiority of humble passive noise isolation over ANC, but let’s start from the point that — like the Chinese who refer to “green tea” merely as “tea”, and refer to what the West knows as black tea, instead, as “red tea” — “Turkish coffee” should simply be denoted as “coffee” and every other (inferior) preparation method that exists be regarded and termed an abhorrent mutilation of the sheer simplicity of cooking very fine grounds in a small receptacle to produce “coffee”.

On that note, a heads up.

My aforementioned purchasing activity recently included the acquisition of a video-camera and other audiovisual essentials, including, naturally, a clipboard sourced from Aliexpress. The reason is that I am intending to start “vlogging” on YouTube later this year. Among other things, I intend to explain, in detail, how to prepare Turkish coffee correctly. For the record, it is beyond shambolic that anybody would have the chutzpah to slot “cafe botz” under the same rubric. I will update on efforts towards advancing my upcoming YouTube stardom when the time comes.

Although I dearly love Turkish coffee, acclaimed to be the most ancient form of coffee brewing, I will admit that doing it well is a trying endeavor without the right equipment.

The great irony about Turkish coffee grinding is that, because it is so fine, it is beyond the reach of most non-commercial grinders which generally can grind no finer than espresso (and Turkish coffee is the finest of all the grinds). Rather delightfully, this means that a humble un-electrified $20 hand burr grinder generally can do something which a $500 one often cannot — namely, produce coffee of a sufficiently power-like consistency to brew Turkish with.

In fact, grinding Turkish coffee requires so much horse-power that even high-powered commercial conical burr grinders are often not officially rated to grind it — although unofficial modifications abound on the online fora that boring coffee enthusiasts like me occasionally populate.

You will not be surprised at this point to know that I am highly snobbish about what I consider a true Turkish grind and what I consider a slightly over-vigorous espresso one

Although I have thus far succeeded in resisting the temptation to acquire a device for measuring particulate size (perhaps a microscope should be on the registry?), I can state decisively that Elite Coffee gets it wrong and Mehmet Effendi gets it right. Likewise, the vast majority of pre-prepared cardamom coffees contain both insufficiently ground coffee and very insufficiently ground (green) cardamom.

For my daily Turkish coffee supply, I therefore rely on a few key tools for the grinding phase if my supply of pre-ground Turkish coffee ever runs out:

A Sözen hand grinder. Anybody that visits Turkey and has an interest in their coffee culture should know that the vast majority of what’s sold to tourists is unbridled junk. Sözen is widely regarded as the best traditional Turkish coffee mill still in production and their eBay shop staff are extremely pleasant and helpful.

The Lido E-T. I have slight compunction about how much this particular item cost. The Lido occupies an entire product class of its own as high-end hand grinders designed well enough to be one’s main grinding solution.

The Lido range are all infinite burr grinders (the E-T stands for ‘espresso’ and ‘Turkish’ because the thread range is biased towards the finer grinds). Playing around with tiny variations is a great learning experience, particularly when trying to get the exact correct grind size for, say, a manual drip filter, which, in my experience, should be slightly coarser than when you are filtering through paper. The beauty of this tool is that it is really best used, in my opinion, as a countertop device (unlike the other grinders mentioned). With it, you can grind everything from cold-brew coarse to Turkish fine with just the power that your biceps provide.

A not-special, not-Turkish hand grinder. My actual go-to for hand grinding, however, is any of the million and one hand grinders on Amazon that state they can do Turkish (the veracity of these claims varies, so if you’re thinking of buying one I advise searching the customer reviews and questions and answers sections for the keyword ‘Turkish’). These are lightweight and Western in appearance so fit conveniently into a backpack/briefcase.

I don’t place particular importance on the finjan/irbik and have a few of varying sizes, some traditional/Oriental in design and others fashioned as plain stainless steel receptacles.

For day-to-day use, however, my go-to brewing receptacle is the Arzum Okka Minio. I acquired two in Turkey two years ago and honestly sorely regret not picking up two more, particularly with the decline of the Lira.

Fully automated Turkish coffee makers are virtually unused, unknown, and un-imported anywhere in the world except Turkey — which is an enormous pity as they are fantastic machines and, as I have continuously intonated, I consider Turkish the superlative method for brewing coffee.

Speaking of which, did you know that Turkey is actually the world’s largest per-capita consumer of tea and that coffee isn’t even all that popular there?

This would have surprised me had I not visited and, much to my chagrin, failed to see all that much in the way of Turkish coffee in the homeland of Turkish coffee. (In truth, this is inaccurate; ‘Turkish’ coffee is known variously as ‘Arabic’, ‘Balkan’, and even ‘Greek’ coffee; like brewing coffee itself, it probably actually originated in North Africa; but the ‘Turkish’ qualifier seem to have stuck better than other geographic qualifiers).

The Minio is phenomenal and probably the best electrical appliance — computer excepted — that I have ever owned.

So concerned am I that anything could happen to mine that I even modified the plug from Type C to Type H just to make sure that they had a connection to earth.

Its design is almost as simple as brewing in a real finjan on a stove. Once the coffee begins to foam, it reaches a little probe that juts down from the top of the device which lowers once the finjan is inserted into the slot. As soon as the foam touches the sensor, the brewing process automatically stops.

Finally, the right demitasse cup is vital to enjoy Turkish coffee properly and another reason why cafe botz — brewed inside Americanno-style vessels — does not even deserve further mention (nor a hyperlink for those curious to know what this loathsome attempt at skipping proper Turkish brewing etiquette typically entails). As with everything coffee-related, I am finnicky about these.

Therefore, if I were forced to ever take my favorite belongings with me, my grinders, Minnio, and cups would all have to come with me.

(I also have a few electric Turkish coffee machines for travel. These are easier to source but do not cut off automatically so must be watched and manually stopped once the foaming begins. I could only find one model wired for US plugs and voltage, which shows you how unpopular Turkish coffee is in the US!)

3: Battlestation supplies

If you’ve never heard the term ‘battlestation’ before, then you are probably not familiar with /r/battlestations, a subreddit notorious among the build-your-own-PC crowd.

I dearly love my own battlestation and draw daily inspiration from the outrageously impressive setups posted there (so much so, in fact, that I have curated my own private collection of ‘best ofs’, as I see them at least).

To everybody who doesn’t frequent r/battlestations, it might sound bizarre to affirm that “my desktop has changed my life,” but I truly believe that to be the case.

My first encounters with PCs came fairly early in life and, naturally, involved machines all of the desktop variety.

Four years ago, I decided to build myself a rig from scratch.

Then, as now, it is a primarily Linux box powered by a humble i3 processor — but with an unhumble 16GB of RAM thrown in for a bit of performance.

The vicissitudes of client document format preferences recently forced me to succumb to adding a physical Windows drive to house a bare-metal install as well as a virtual machine. And a backup drive as — to make myself sound even cooler — I have also, over the years, become a massive believer in the importance of backups (reinstalling Linux enough times tends to have that effect on people!). Other periodic upgrades — to the graphics card and cooling system — have kept it in amazing running order.

When I affirm that this computer has changed my life, I mean, really, that is has changed the way I work.

I find working from it so efficient that, as time has gone one, I have virtually stopped attempting to be productive from any other device. I can adjust to a laptop, if necessary, in a few days, and check email periodically from my phone when out. But, in general, I find dealing with mobile UIs an exercise in futility.

This has had the unexpectedly pleasant effect that I find myself more present when not at my computer.

Fumbling around some poorly designed app is completely unappealing when I could simply leave a note to perform the same function from my home PC in a fraction of the time.

On the negative side, it can be so engrossing that I sometimes spend unhealthily long stretches of time at my computer.

There’s also something of a feeling of being a part of a counter-revolution by being a fervent desktop fan.

People have been intoning about the impending demise of desktops for years. When laptops reach the point that they can be universally upgraded with the ease of desktops — and USB-C/DispayLink multi-monitor adapters are sufficiently robust, particularly for open-source desktop users — I will declare the point to be moot as I can get everything I love about my setup and also enjoy the portability that laptops provide.

Until then, for many, they are the best means to achieving productivity on higher-spec hardware that exists and an ideal way to become acquainted with how hardware slots together to make a computer function.

To complement the machine itself (and this is probably my favorite part of the setup), I have bough several monitor arms from Amazon.

Due to varying employment and workspace landscapes over the years, I now have a couple of spare stands and monitors. These will hopefully be deployed in future ‘battlestations’ and perhaps even one day be graced by a coworker should I ever scale to such dizzying heights of self-employment success to require expanding the payroll.

Until then, they gather dust, but I personally believe that investing aggressively in my computer, laptop (for when I must use it), and ensuring the liberal provision of monitors and monitors stands has been a financial decision that I remain on-board with.

To wrap things up..

To interject some necessary context into this piece, and to tie things together, I will conclude this post by referring back to the beginning.

I’ve finished work (and wedding-planning) related tasks for the day, which is typically when — every six months or so — I update this blog.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that it’s probably somewhere between two and three in the morning.

(An unusual feature of my Linux desktop is that I hide the time in my notification area, displaying only the date and month next to the volume indicator. Calendar notifications remind me of appointments that are essential — as do periodic glances at my wristwatch — but otherwise I prefer to be immersed in whatever task I am working on. And it works! On occasion, it’s possible to become fixated on work at this battlestation for an entire night at a time, only knowing that dawn has broken when, well, you notice light out the window).

My trusty Etymotics have done a stellar job over the past hour at completely dulling the sound of the overnight construction crew, allowing me to write this post without too much in the way of mental distraction.

I have penned this piece while periodically sipping my hand-ground Turkish coffee prepared automagically in my Arzum and poured into my favorite demitasse cup, precisely 60ml in capacity (one could say that Turkish coffee enthusiasm and a smattering of OCD are not a match made in heaven!). That also probably ensures that I will be up for at least another hour after I click the ‘publish’ button!

And I have written this at my desktop while stationed, as I have been for most of the day, at my battlestation, with my delightful triple-screen setup allowing me to take occasional glances at my email and the news.

It’s great!

I buy a lot online.

Most of it is boring things that most people would buy in stores as required.

Personally, I love everything technology and internet-related, so choose to buy literally everything that I can from websites. To do otherwise, in my view, is to support anachronistic purchasing processes that should have already been digitized.

Despite what one may intuitively think about somebody that has ordered more than 1,000 products from Aliexpress, I believe that — all things considered — I probably save money by buying cheaper and often better products from the internet rather than in bricks-and-mortar establishments. And, as a fringe benefit, I know all of the staff at my local post office by first name!

Amidst all the mundane purchases, however, have been some truly epic ones that fit into the minute percentage of purchases about which I can honestly say “I couldn’t live without that anymore.

The above just scratches the surface of the great things I’ve sourced from far and wide over the internet, but it’s what I consider my ‘go-to’ gear for getting set up and working — which is generally my go-to priority.

They are truly some of the best things that I own.

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