Intermittent blogging ahead

Blogging has been intermittent this week without excuse. The next two weeks may be just as bad, but with excuses. Starting tomorrow I vanish into the District to assist at this year’s IHS Liberty and Current Issues seminar. Working these seminars always makes for a great experience with interesting people, so I’m very glad to be back. Whether I get any blogging done will depend on how frequently the attendees — and faculty — require my services as purchaser of beer in mass quantities.

After that I’ll have one day in Arlington before leaving for my annual trip to the beautiful Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my favorite place in the world. Highlights of the vacation should include crewing once again in the three day sailing regatta and my first magic gig in several years. Rumor has it the nearby town of Cedarville now has free wi-fi in its new library, so I may be spending a little time online. Cell phone access will probably be nil, but that’s part of the appeal in a landscape like this:

sunset.jpg

Who wants to have Five Guys with me?

As Gene says, “perhaps gentrification does suck.” But extended gentrification can be awesome.

I’m referring to the Five Guys that’s going to be opening in September in the new Navy League building currently finishing up construction in Courthouse. Five Guys makes some of the juiciest, tastiest burgers around, and it’s about time they found their way into Arlington. Score one for the Orange Line!

The other new restaurants will be a smoothie bar called Robeks (a healthy alternative for Five Guys day after guilt), a Sala Thai relocated from Washington Blvd., and a new American place named Fire Creek. Washington Business Journal has the full story.

[Tip of the hat to the Murky Coffee blog. And I know that the "score one for the Orange Line" bit was incredibly lame, but it's late and I'm running with it anyway.]

Mormon cafe culture?

Make that de-cafe culture. This entry is for the Mormons in the audience who can’t partake of the delicious espresso beverages so often discussed here on Eternal Recurrence. Jeff sent me this article about Vermillion Skies De-cafe and Lounge, a caffeine-free coffee shop in Provo:

The upstart Provo hangout serves coffee-type beverages without the coffee.

Posers, as they are called, feature Pero instead of ground coffee beans, and they are among a handful of menu items you won’t find at any other java joint.

[Christin] Johnson, a 22-year-old English major at Brigham Young University, started Vermillion Skies to give Mormon students – who don’t drink coffee or alcohol – a place to hang out and experience pop culture without going against their religious beliefs.

“It’s not about seeing how close to the line you can get without crossing it,” says the Arizona native. “It’s more about how much you can enjoy without compromising.”

Interesting idea. I’d never heard of Pero before, but this page that sells it doesn’t make me feel like I’m missing anything:

Looking for a natural alternative to coffee and tea? Your search is over. PERO is a 100% natural beverage with a coffee like taste. It’s 100% naturally caffeine free and blended from select all natural ingredients–malted barley, chicory, and rye.

For my fellow purists who are in the D.C. area, it might not be too late to sneak into tonight’s Murky espressso tasting

Incentives matter, especially in the morning

As I was dozing through the first ten minutes of “Meet the Press” this morning, I had an idea for an alarm clock that would effectively get people out of bed on time. It’s a two piece system: the first piece is an alarm clock in the bedroom, the second is a paper shredder in some other room, say the kitchen or the bathroom. The two devices are synchronized and communicate wirelessly. When the alarm goes off, it begins a countdown for the paper shredder to activate. If the user doesn’t get out of bed in time to go deactivate the shredder in the other room, it turns on and shreds whatever paper happens to be in the feeder tray.

The key to success is for the user to place an appropriate amount of money in the shredder before going to bed, based on how important it is that he gets up in the morning. If it’s only to catch MTP on Sunday, maybe just a dollar. For a job interview, a twenty. For his own wedding, a $100 bill is probably in order.

Of course, the importance of whatever event one has to get up for should be all the incentive one needs to get out of bed, but we know that isn’t always the case. To put it in economic terms, our discount rates are often very high when the alarm goes off, so we undervalue future goods relative to staying under the covers for a few more minutes. Remembering that there’s a big bill on the verge of destruction would give us an immediate good to value.

Structure the incentives right and one need never be late again. Better living through economics.

Farley flashback

For the Vandy people in the audience: Jeff Woodhead reports on a surprise phone call he received from chronically and comically angry math professor Jonathan Farley.

Caffe shakerato

Last week I purchased my very first martini shaker. Fittingly, the inspiration for it had nothing to do with martinis and everything to do with coffee.

In my espresso post I mentioned that I’d found an iced espresso drink that I really love. I’m not normally a fan of iced espresso drinks; they’re too often overly sweet or milky. Yet this one that was available throughout Italy called the caffe shakerato has none of those problems. It’s cold, delicious, and retains the richness and complexity of espresso. In short, I’ve been converted.

The drink is made by pouring a fresh shot of espresso into a martini shaker with ice and, if desired, a bit of sugar syrup. It’s shaken up to aerate the espresso, then strained into a small, chilled glass. At its best, it’s silky smooth and has a head of crema that bubbles up from the bottom of the glass like a freshly poured Guinness (well, not exactly like Guinness).

Though the drink is hard to find in the Frappuccino-dominated U.S., you can try making your own. This page has a few more tips on how to do it and a great photo of what it’s supposed to look like.

Nanny state links

Bar Power — Via Adrienne, Ban the Ban volunteers are canvassing D.C. bars tomorrow night to rally the opposition to the smoking ban and make patrons’ and employees’ voices heard. If you support freedom, if you think bar owners should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to allow smoking in their establishments, or if you just want to flirt with libertarians, stop by one of the locations listed and sign a postcard that will be sent to the city council.

[Update 7/11/05: Adrienne posts her account of the event.]

Morgan Spurlock Watch — Radley’s started up a new weblog to debunk the many misleading or poorly researched claims of Morgan Spurlock. Any blog that links to the Cato Institute and Five Guys hamburgers must be good, yeah? Read it through RSS to avoid the daily glimpse of the Spurlock burgernipple pic.

London

I’d planned to write this morning about my brief stay in London, particularly of how great the coffee was and of an interesting magic performance I saw there. Obviously, both of those posts would be hopelessly inadequate and of poor taste today.

I’ve been reminded that had I not changed my travel plans at the last minute, I would still be in London now. My originally scheduled flight home is not supposed to leave from Gatwick till tomorrow; it’s all too easy to imagine myself taking the Tube this morning into central London to make the most of my last day in the city and ending up either helplessly stranded or on the scene of the tragedy.

Nonetheless, the events still feel nearby after being in the city so recently. One of the blasts took place just two Underground stops away from Monmouth, the excellent coffee shop I’d made a point of visiting. I was literally taking my first sips this morning of coffee scooped fresh at the store just over a week ago when I read the news of the attacks, and I thought of the very friendly baristas I talked to while there. My thoughts go out to them and I hope they’re all right.

Mon chien? Pourquoi?

Checking my webstats just now, I learned that a photo of my dog is reposted for some reason on this French discussion forum (middle of page three). My French isn’t good enough to figure out why, but it has something to with Paris losing the Olympics, Brad Pitt, and cafe-philo. Any French speakers (Sarah?) care to explain what the heck’s going on here?

[Update 7/7/05: OMG Sarah solves the mystery LOL ;)

"Yeah, that page is mostly slang French text message language, but I got exposed to that via my fifth graders.

Basically ...it's a music forum, they started off talking about some music lyrics, saying that the rapper Milou has fine, subtle lyrics (jeux des mots = word play). Then someone mentioned a show that was suppose to have a surprise guest that people thought would be Pitt but then wasn't. Then someone posted some lyrics "Yeah, see the flames and the sourness, it's rough, that torrid night, Milou. The couch, is that it? Rude/rough, those stars of "ciao, ciao, kisses". Then the conversation switched over to the Olympics. So basically, um, your dog's photo got posted cause he's on a couch.

It really doesn't have much to do with Brad Pitt or the Olympics or cafe philo."]

High-tech cafe culture

I posted a while ago about the conflict between creating a healthy cafe culture and offering customers free wi-fi access inside a coffee shop. One solution I’m sympathetic to is shutting it off on weekends, but I also expressed an interest in finding ways of using technology to build community. A new Nashville coffee shop called Edgehill Studios seems to be doing just that:

Every day, technology brings people closer together yet farther apart. While e-mail can be sent across the globe, interpersonal communication with your neighbor can seem harder and harder in today’s wired world.

Edgehill Studios, a recently opened café at 1201 Villa Place in the Music Row area, hopes to reverse that trend. The café combines the old-fashioned feel of a neighborhood coffee shop with today’s latest technology in music, art and graphic design.

The café’s atmosphere illustrates this combination. A plasma screen TV with scrolling photography adorns one of the art-covered walls. An iPod bar, which allows customers to listen to others’ iPods or download their own songs, extends through the café’s center. A graphic designer uses the latest technology to design a variety of customer needs that can be printed at the café…

Music lovers can hear a variety of genres at the iPod bar. By plugging in, the bar allows as many as three customers to listen to the same iPod or mp3 player. They can also peruse the café’s Internet server to see if any music, art, short story, poem or photography is of interest.

Customers who like what they hear can legally download the music from pay sites such as iTunes or rent laptops for $7 per hour to download the music to their respective players.

“(The iPod bar) gets them in and allows them to hear local artists as well as professional recorded artists,” Poole said.

Edgehill Studios will showcase live musical acts on weekend nights. To continue trying to bring people together, in mid-July the café will start offering another drink that often does just that — beer.

Performing musicians’ songs can be previewed and will also be available on the server for purchase. In addition, the café can offer the performing artists a live CD recording of their act. For customers, the sound staff can burn an entire CD and have the graphic design department design the disk.

The article goes on to discuss how the staff can print photography and other works right there in the shop. It seems like a great way to bring people together, promote the work of local artists, and expose customers to each other’s musical tastes. I like it. My only question: How’s the coffee?

[Thanks to Chad Wilcox for the link.]

Stay low key on Kelo?

I’m going to pick a fight with Nikki here. In reference to the Free Stater led pledge to stay in the Lost Liberty Hotel built on David Souter’s property, which the developer would seize using the powers of eminent domain, Nikki says:

…for those lacking a sense of humor, i should say that as a species in general, flying hedgehogs usually do not support eminent domain, for revenge or otherwise. it’s funny to mention, but certainly not to do. the law is a serious institution and shouldn’t be used to punish someone just because his or her interpretation is unpopular.

I signed the pledge and admit that when I did I felt a little twinge of doubt that I was doing the right thing. “We’re better than this,” I thought. Using eminent domain, even to prove a point against one of the justices who have validated its abuse, raises the possibility of hypocrisy. But since the hotel doesn’t really stand any chance of getting built and the pledge has been carried out more for the publicity value than for any chance that the hotel would actually be constructed, I added my name to the list and gave the issue no further thought. Now Nikki’s post has made me revisit it.

Let’s start with what’s wrong with the Kelo decision. By weakening “public use” to mean anything that’s done for a “public purpose,” it gives the state practically unrestrained power to seize people’s property and redistribute it to other richer, more politically connected people. This interpretation of eminent domain law is open to the same criticism Rawls offers against utilitarianism: by looking only to the aggregate good, it (and Souter)does not take seriously the distinction between persons. It converts an individual’s property right from a constraint on state power that can only be bypassed under stringent conditions to a title that’s respected at the leisure of the state legislature or city council. Importantly, as O’Connor notes in her dissent:

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

Despite Kelo’s precedents, I don’t see how Souter et al could have rendered the decision they did if the security of their wealth and power didn’t allow them to feel detached from the risk of having their own homes or businesses capriciously seized. The Court was supposed to be the last resort protector of our individual rights, and I don’t know a better way to make the injustice of their ruling real to them than by supporting this (certain to fail) eminent domain claim. I obviously don’t think that we should be using eminent domain for revenge against just anyone who happens to make us mad, but the government officials who abuse the power of eminent domain or explicitly enable its abuse are in a different category. They are elites who must be kept in check and one of the most basic ways we can do this is to at least make sure that they live or suffer under the same laws the rest of us do.

As a corollary argument, I think it’s in the interest of liberty to treat our government officials with more heartlessness than we would our fellow citizens. So, for instance, I would not normally want a prosecutor to file charges against someone for lighting up a joint of marijuana. But if that someone is the nation’s Drug Czar, I say throw the book at him. When our rulers are busy exercising any excuse for power and eliminating any check upon it, we may have to be willing to take our gloves off on occasion. We’re a long way from tarring and feathering the tax collectors, but perhaps we could use some of that rebellious spirit in the time in which we live. For that reason I sincerely like the creative, pointed stunts some of the Free Staters are coming up with. (On that note, Chad Horne has kept the debate alive on the manicure post.)

If by some miracle the Lost Liberty Hotel does get built, I’ll live up to my pledge without guilt. But I’m open to persuasion otherwise; my thoughts on the matter aren’t entirely clear and I respect Nikki’s notion that we should have more respect for the law than our opponents. Did I sin in signing? I’m curious to know what other people think.

From Corner Bars to Sant’Eustachio: In Search of Italian Espresso

Prior to my trip to Italy, the people who told me about the coffee there fell into three camps. One said that it was excellent everywhere and that the worst espresso drink in Italy was better than the best drink in the U.S. A more complimentary group said that it was uniformly good and that Murky was the only place they’d found in D.C. that could match it. A small number of people said that the espresso was actually rather disappointing compared to the really good stuff available in the best American shops. Once in Italy, I made a point of trying out as big a variety of coffee bars as possible to see who was right.

Unfortunately, I’ve got to say that the third group was right based on my sampling. I went to a lot of places, and in almost all of them the espresso was bitter, not complex, and sometimes thin. Hardly anyone hand-tamped the pucks and they didn’t take much care in the dosing, either. Perhaps they get away with this because so many drinkers add sugar there, but a more likely explanation is that the market has just become complacent. For example, talking with a local in Venice one night I asked him where in town I should go for a great shot of espresso. He looked at me like I’d just asked a Container Store clerk where they keep the containers. “Well, anywhere,” he said. This was Italy. He did eventually pick out one place as especially good and it was one of the better shots I had on the island. Surprisingly, it was from an automatic machine, which tells you how poor the technique was elsewhere.

There were a few exceptions, however. One was the lone Illy shop I made it to in Amalfi. Illy’s known for preground espresso for use in restaurants or home machines in the U.S., but in Italy they’re highly respected. This was the one place that pulled a really good shot, so good that I ordered another one to give it another taste. (One good thing about Italy: espresso can be had for much cheaper than in the U.S. I think the Illy shop was offering them for just 65 Euro cents apiece.)

The most interesting place I went was Sant’Eustachio il Caffe, the one place in Rome I made a point of checking out. Widely known as one of the world’s best coffee shops, they wood roast the coffee on premises, produce amazingly thick crema, and position their two espresso machines so that the baristi’s activities are hidden from customers’ view. How exactly they produce the coffee they do is a tightly guarded secret. A 1998 article in The New Yorker describes its aura like this:

Like most of the great bars in Italy, Sant’ Eustachio is really an all-business, standup kind of place. Although it is vaguely permissible to drink a morning cappuccino while seated, espresso must be consumed on your feet. A couple of thousand people wander in every day–and each stays about five minutes. There the baristi– barmen who are something of a cross between short-order cooks and maitre d’s–can be so regal and perfunctory that they would have been perfectly suited to work the rope line at Studio 54 during its signature years. Sant’ Eustachio is the only place I have ever been where you are expected to tip before you are served.

Yet Sant’ Eustachio is probably the most deeply revered bar in Rome. Its house specialty, the gran caff謠comes with a crema–the burnished foam on the surface of the espresso–so thick and rich that the director of Tazza d’Oro, the competing shop just a few hundred yards away, told me in the gravest possible tones that he was certain the coffee was roasted with additives (cream, perhaps, or chocolate). The rivalry between Tazza d’Oro and Sant’ Eustachio has all the subtlety of that between Letterman and Leno–and few Romans are agnostic. “Their coffee is good, of course,” Silvano Giovannucci, the director of Tazza d’Oro, said to me about his competition. “But it is not pure. If you want pure coffee you would have to come here.”

The crema at Sant’Eustachio really was incredible. Easily the thickest and most airy I’ve ever seen, almost as if they’d given the shot of espresso a hit off the steam wand (but of course they didn’t). It’s this crema that leads to all the speculation about what the shop does or doesn’t add to the beans; Bon Appetit suggests that the secret ingredient, if there is one, might even me bicarbonate. I have no idea. Beneath the crema, however, the espresso was unexceptional and thin. Perhaps they were just having a bad day, but that was a bit disappointing — though it didn’t stop me from ordering four drinks and a souvenir demitasse.

Curious about how the cafe gets its results, I brought a kilo back home to try out with some of the Murky crew on the Synesso. It was the weirdest damn blend I’ve seen. We never could get a really good pull with the stuff; it had a tendency to come out weirdly thin and black at first before developing a very small amount of crema. I don’t know if the secret’s in the ingredients or the technique, but we never matched the crema at the original store. It was fun trying though.

Even though the espresso in Italy was generally unimpressive, I had a good time trying it out (and I did do more than just hang out in coffee shops all day). I also learned a bit about steaming milk for a cappuccino, which they really did do well, and discovered a new iced espresso drink that I really love. Details on that to come. The bottom line: the espresso in Italy isn’t some magical brew that can’t be beaten anywhere else in the world, but the chance to sip cappuccini in Piazza San Marco while a band plays classic Italian music and an evening breeze blows in off the canals makes it all worthwhile.

New book review posted

agonyforest2.jpgI have a book review up today at The Humane Studies Review. The book is Samuel MacDonald’s The Agony of an American Wilderness, an investigative report of the conflicts surrounding logging on the Allegheny National Forest.

Going into a book like this one, my two apprehensions are that it will be either boring or excessively biased against environmentalists. This one is neither. It’s well written, interesting, and, while the author clearly sympathizes with commercial logging, is balanced throughout. Here’s the full review.

Blimp, my ride

At about this time a year ago I was assisting at an IHS seminar in Seattle and contemplating whether I was going to continue working full time in “the movement” or do something different like working in a coffee shop. Happily, I chose the latter, but at the time all sorts of employment possibilities were occurring to me. The Sanyo Blimp happened to be in town that same week and was a frequent sight in the sky. “How does one become a blimp pilot?” I wondered. It seems like a cool job, but nobody ever talks about it. The question kept popping into my mind intermittently over the past year.

Don’t get excited, this isn’t the announcement of the new job I mysteriously alluded to a few days ago. I’m not dressing up like an animal, and I’m not flying a giant balloon. But when I found out Luke had a new blog where he answers people’s random questions, I decided to see what he could find out about blimps. He came through quickly and has all the information you need right here, including the essential reason you’re better off being an astronaut.

Also, here’s some guy’s photo of a blimp situated perfectly over the Space Needle. I picture the craft about to land on it, getting a puncture wound, and whizzing off in loops around the city like a balloon with a pinhole in it. That sounds fun. That’s also why I’m better off not being a blimp pilot.

Little things to make life easier

Tommy Keswick, my fellow Cato intern from a couple of years ago, points out a couple of handy utilities on the PowerToys page for WinXP users. One is Tweak UI, which lets you change parts of the Windows interface that aren’t normally accessible to the user. The second is Image Resizer, which makes it very easy and fast to resize individual or groups of images without opening them up in a photo editor.

I also like the Alt-tab Replacement PowerToy. It adds preview images to the choices of application you have open. This would be especially useful for those of you not using tabbed browsing.

I tried all three this afternoon and like them. Others are available, too.