Science, Magic and Starbucks

Science, Magic and Starbucks

So this weekend I’m catching up on a collection of blog essays — continuations and corollaries on the never-ending debate of what constitutes science and magic in the world of, er… speculative fiction1 — when what to my wondering eyes should appear but an altogether apt metaphor for the state of Starbucks. From a post by Ted Chiang on the effects of the Industrial Revolution: Before mass production, technology usually involved the personal touch. Every artifact was the product of an individual’s care and attention; every tool was born of a conscious act. If a device worked well, it was usually because someone had been concentrating really hard when they made it. After mass production, that was no longer the case. The personal touch vanished from many aspects of daily life. Voila. There remains only one remaining bit of existential inquery: is a great cappuccino the result of science, or magic? Discuss. P.S. If you’re not familiar with Ted Chiang’s work, try his award-winning short story, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. When you’re talking about the magic vs. science debate, it’s perhaps best to use the biggest possible basket you’ve got, the better in which to deposit the arguments and theories therein, and also to pack a lunch ’cause you may be at it a while. As to the debate itself, see the July 14 Bloggled entries in the sidebar....
Is Cream a Coffee Pollutant?

Is Cream a Coffee Pollutant?

There are millions who wouldn’t think of coffee without abundant cream and sugar. (Hello, New England!) And there are a precious, precocious few who would consider condiments of *any* sort anathema to the coffee experience. For them, the NYTimes offers this point of view: Coffee purists would never, ever add dairy to their coffee, and they would sooner drink General Foods International’s instant Hazelnut Belgian Café than add soy milk. After all, we’re now in the age of microlot coffee, when beans are harvested and handled with the same care that goes into making wine, and the flavors of an exceptional cup of coffee can be as layered and complex as a glass of pinot noir. Cream would just ruin it. If it sounds snobby, consider this: would you dab a Peter Luger porterhouse with ketchup? A slab of well-aged beef needs nothing more than salt, pepper and a good char. There’s nothing arrogant about leaving the Heinz out of it. Firstly, never is a very  long time. To say that one might never add cream — or any dairy — is to rule out the little slice of heaven that is the espresso macchiato, or the more bountiful coffee and dairy expression that is the cappuccino. And that would be wrong. Secondly, Peter who? Oh… yeah. I guess it’s a New York thing. Sorry, if you want to make a purist’s analogy between coffee and aged beef, maybe you should refer to a purist’s steakhouse, and those are in Kansas City. Yes, both of them. Thirdly, hey… check out that photo! That’s an old-school alt.coffee regular in the...

The Coffee Klatch Anti-Bad-Coffee Movement

Remember that note a few days back where Starbucks was closing up shop for a few hours to retrain its staff? The good folks at Coffee Klatch (Hi, Mike! Hi, Heather!) cleverly decided to offer free coffee while their neighborhood Starbucks shops were closed for a remedial course in coffeeology… and in so doing accidentally started a movement. “First our announcement started circulating on coffee discussion websites and blogs, then our phones started ringing and email messages of support poured in from coast-to-coast,” says Mike Perry, Coffee Klatch president. “I was shocked to see that our local promotion to demonstrate how much better our coffee is than Starbucks had turned into a nationwide uprising of independent coffeehouses.” So walk right on in to Coffee Klatch, or a fine, independent coffee house near you, order yourself a cappuccino, and hum a few bars of Alice’s Restaurant. With...
The Perfect Cappuccino – A Documentary

The Perfect Cappuccino – A Documentary

Over the summer (when it was warm and there was no snow on the ground… did I mention it’s snowing in Vermont today? Already? Again?) filmmaker Amy Ferraris dropped by to comment on a post (Where Are the Great Good Places?) and suggested a few places *she’d* found to be both great and good in the course of making her latest documentary, The Perfect Cappuccino. Now dangling a film title like that in front of a professed cappuccino hound like me is much akin to teasing a RenFest junkie with a frozen turkey leg — amusing, to be sure, but slightly sadistic. At the time she pledged that a movie trailer would be available soon… and the rest was silence. Fast-forward to today… when I learned that the trailer has been out for two months, thus dashing my hopes that Bloggle had become the clearinghouse of all things coffee. (Hah!) Nonetheless, I like what I see. Amy’s style is quirky, her writing sardonic; clearly she’s getting behind the counter and talking to folk both interesting and authoritative in the specialty coffee trade. I look forward to be able to screen it. Soon. (Hint, wink, nudge… saynomore, guv.) P.S. Amy has a blog, too, which she updates far too infrequently. Not that I’m one to hold that against...
Fatty Cappuccino? Blame the Reindeer.

Fatty Cappuccino? Blame the Reindeer.

It’s fair to say that, on this side of the pond, Heather Mills doesn’t get much attention. Who? Oh, you know… married the Beetle. No, not that one. The other one. There you are.1 In the UK, however, Heather gets the same sort of air-time and intense media scrutiny as, say, Britney, and for similar reasons: their lives are high-wire acts that could come careening down — in a tragic yet altogether riveting manner — at any moment. But now she’s done it. During another typically bizarre day for Heather Mills, the former model yesterday urged people to try drinking milk from rats and dogs to help save the planet. First of all, just try to *not* imagine milking a rat. It’s rather like trying not to think about pink elephants, albeit on a much smaller scale. And second, it’s just the kind of nonsensical declaration that gets people, like Laura Barton at the Guardian, to pondering, “…how does one milk a rat?” and, “Would rodent milk make a decent latte?” “I would imagine she was thinking that any mammal produces milk,” says Juliet Harbutt, chairman of the British Cheese Awards, kindly. “However, if one would like to envisage, just for a moment, the difficulty of actually milking a rat, perhaps it would provide the answer. It would probably be easier to milk a whale. They’re bigger.” According to Harbutt, the milk of goats, sheep, buffalo, reindeer, camels, horses and asses is used to make cheese, and theoretically one could milk a pig. “Though again,” she adds, “milking a pig could only be described as a challenge.” No kidding....
Woz: Why Robots Will Never Make Coffee

Woz: Why Robots Will Never Make Coffee

What’s not to love about Steve Wozniak? Think of the steps that a human being has to do to make a cup of coffee and you have covered basically 10, 20 years of your lifetime just to learn it. So for a computer to do it the same way, it has to go through the same learning, walking to a house using some kind of optical with a vision system, stepping around and opening the door properly, going down the wrong way, going back, finding the kitchen, detecting what might be a coffee machine. You can’t program these things, you have to learn it, and you have to watch how other people make coffee. … This is a kind of logic that the human brain does just to make a cup of coffee. We will never ever have artificial intelligence. Your pet, for example, your pet is smarter than any computer. — Steve Wozniak I have no doubt that robots *can* make coffee. I’m certain there are coffee-making robots in Japan right now. But I’m pretty confident that they’ll never consistently make, say, a really good cappuccino. There’s just too many variables at play. Now, however, thanks to Woz I hold out some hope I can teach my dog to make a decent cappa. Right after I can teach her that my socks really aren’t chew...

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