Get a free blog at WordPress.com

Blogger has a lot of problems, but for a long time it’s been one of the easiest and most popular service to use for people starting up a weblog for the first time. Now it has some healthy competition from WordPress.com, which came out of beta today.

WordPress.com offers users a free weblog on its domain. It doesn’t offer all of the flexibility that using WordPress on one’s own server provides, but it looks to be a good choice for people who don’t want to deal with hosting fees and setup. Advantages over Blogger appear to be a better composition page and better comment spam protection, among other things. Here’s a review.

[Via Weblog Tools Collection.]

Dog blogging

Today my parents drove a bit north of Dallas to pick up a new puppy. This scruffy little guy makes our third wire hair fox terrier.

They’ve chosen the name Pee-Kay, as in PK, or a penalty kick in soccer.

I won’t get to see him until I head home for Christmas. You know what that means — a mere four days of using him to meet women. I’d better ask Radley for some tips before I go.

Beating Starbucks

I’ve become so used to not clicking on any link with nytimes.com in the URL that I almost missed this feature article on the quickly growing specialty coffee industry. The piece includes quotes from Intelligentsia’s Doug Zell, Taylor Maid’s Mark Inman, and Murky’s Nick Cho.

Bubble boy

Tim Kehoe’s dream of creating richly colored bubbles has finally come true. It’s the feel good story of the year.

[Via Barzelay.]

Things are OK with me these days…

… got a good job, got a good office.

“So what is it you do exactly?” That’s a question I’ve been frequently asked since alluding to mysterious new jobs a few months back. Delays and committees led to my work situation taking longer to sort out than expected, but now things are finally settled and I’m excited by the outcome.

I’m working one night a week at Pica Deli Gourmet and Wine, a wine bar, deli, and retail store in Arlington. I’ve actually been there for about two months serving wine and performing close-up magic for the regulars. It’s been a great gig for learning about and tasting a variety of wines and testing out new magic material. I’m there most Friday nights and some Thursdays; check the events calendar at right for details if you’d ever like to stop in for a glass of wine and a card trick.

The newer development is that I’m finally back behind the coffee bar. For the past week I’ve been intensely training with the staff of Open City, the newest venture from the owners of Adams-Morgan hotspots Tryst and The Diner. Open City will be a full service restaurant, bar, and coffee shop in Woodley Park. Rare for a restaurant, Open City takes its espresso seriously. They’ve invested in an attractive, free standing coffee bar centered around a Synesso. I spent yesterday afternoon knocking the rust off my old skills and familiarizing myself with Tryst’s excellent coffee menu. I still have much to work on, but it felt great to once again have my hands covered in espresso and wrapped around a tamper.

Open City opened its doors today to a reportedly ravenous crowd; I start my first shift rocking out drinks tomorrow at 6 am. The place is located one block from the Woodley Park Metro, on Calvert around the corner from Chipotle.

In addition to the above, I’ll continue freelancing with writing and magic. All public engagements will be listed on the events calendar.

In summary: Espresso, wine, magic, writing, and, most importantly, a regular income. Life is good.

My blog’s not dead…

… but my laptop is. Looking to replace it ASAP. Any suggestions?

[Update 11/12/05: Thanks for all your suggestions. None of you recommended Compaq, so if my Presario v2000 breaks down I have only myself to blame.

Note to Apple: give me two mouse buttons, then we'll talk.]

Two Three new coffee inventions

Coffee invention #1: Regular readers know about my obsession with Aerobie, the “astonishing flying ring” that puts all other frisbees to sad, sad shame. So you can imagine that my interest was piqued when I learned that Aerobie inventor Alan Adler had turned his engineering efforts to the creation of a better coffee maker. I haven’t tried it out, but reading over the product page it appears to have some good points and some bad points.

[Update 12/4/2005: Since writing this post I have been able try the Aeropress out in person. My review of it is available here.]

The AeropressThe Aeropress works similarly to a traditional press, in that water is poured over loose grounds and then forced through a filter with light pressure after a period of steeping. One difference that I like is that, as you can see in the promo picture, coffee in the Aeropress is pushed downward through a filter with light air pressure, rather than the filter pushed through the coffee as in a French press. The advantage here is that if you brew more coffee than you can fit in your mug, the remainder is kept off the grounds so it doesn’t leech out bitter flavors.

Now for some criticism. The Aeropress uses very fine microfilters instead of the more porous steel filters found in most presses. Aerobie claims that this allows the drinker to use finer ground coffee, resulting in shorter steeping times and fewer particles sneaking through to cause the bitterness and grittiness that often haunt the final dregs of a French press. However, the rich body produced by a French press is part of what makes it so delicious and sensual. In contrast, Aeropress coffee is “so pure and particle-free that it can be stored for days as a concentrate.” That doesn’t sound to me like coffee with a good, velvety body.

The Aeropress also boasts of producing coffee with low acidity. That’s a good thing if you’re used to the stomach-turning acidity of the coffee you probably get from your office’s drip maker. But acidity has a good side called brightness. Balanced by body and other flavors, it’s valued in a quality cup. I’d be worried that a bright coffee might come out a bit flat after a thirty second journey through an Aeropress.

Finally, the Aeropress’s advertised ability to make espresso is ridiculous. You can’t get a good shot of espresso unless you’ve got the pressure to extract the lipids and colloids than produce the flavorful and aromatic crema. Absent that, all you’ve got are a few ounces of highly concentrated coffee. It may taste good in milk, but it’s sure as hell not espresso.

It seems that the primary quest behind the Aeropress was to create something better than cheap drip brewers and the trendy and expensive pod machines. I’m willing to believe that this device meets that challenge and produces a smoother, less bitter cup. Unfortunately, from the description it appears it may achieve this at the cost of body and brightness, two very important qualities. If the Aeropress came with the option to use less porous filters that would work with coarser grinds and longer brewing times, then the downward filtering and easy cleaning might give it a legitimate edge over a French press. I suppose the challenge here would be preventing the coffee from filtering through too early.

Coffee invention #2: I wasn’t sure if this was real when I read it, but it’s a kind of neat though not world-shakingly useful idea. Coffee shop owner Nick Bayss has invented “smart” coffee lids for take-away cups that change color with heat. They start out a dark coffee brown, then shift into a bright red when they heat up. A dark band around the rim shows that the lid is on securely, while a red spot on the band would indicate that it has been applied incorrectly and steam is escaping. This indicator would supposedly prevent burn-causing spills. The lids would also give customers a visual signal of their beverage’s temperature.

Like I said, this is not an invention one can’t live without. But at a cost of just a penny extra per lid, they may be worthwhile. Add to this the fact that the new Smart Lid Systems company is looking into making the lids with custom colors or appearing messages and they might just have a marketing winner. Check out the pictures in the article. They look cool.

Coffee Invention #3 [update]: A few minutes after posting, I came across this third coffee invention. Nestle has applied for patents in all major markets for a kind of coffee beer. This isn’t beer flavored with coffee, but rather a beverage fermented from actual roasted coffee beans. Yeasts metabolize coffee and sucrose. Previously extracted coffee oils, nitrogen, and sugar are then added to create a foamy drink.

Alas, Nestle’s coffee beer is fermented at a temperature too low to produce alcohol, so drinkers looking to get drunk and buzzed at the same time will have to settle for Anheuser-Busch’s nasty sounding BE energy beer. It’s not nearly as appealing as this farcical ThinkGeek product.

Smash Corporate Greed!

Ooh, the AFL-CIO has an online video game arcade! Play “Smash Corporate Greed” to vent your anger against the man, or “Shatter the Glass Ceiling” with some Arkanoid-style action. A Teamster version of Frogger that replaces the frog with a CEO and makes the trucks the good guys is in development, I’m sure.

I know what you’re thinking… “If we libertarians had such fun and educational Flash games, perhaps we could finally win the political victories we so richly deserve.”

Oh, but we do! Purge your mind of the anti-capitalist ideas so subtly drawn into the union’s games with “The Tragedy of the Bunnies.” I know I’m partial, but I really do think we’ve got better animation, catchier music, and a sounder economic lesson to teach. And isn’t that what video games are all about?

[Thanks, Renee!]

Brilliant idea for a better world

“The blogosphere is a-buzz about Kiva,” writes Pablo Halkyard on the World Bank’s Private Sector Development blog, though I’d never heard of it until tonight. Kiva combines the development potential of microcredit with direct reporting on the people receiving loans. Interested donors can browse the Kiva website for African businesses in need of small amounts of capital to get started. They can then make loans to specific businesses in increments of $25 and will receive monthly updates on the success of the entrepreneurs to whom they give loans. At the end of the finance period, the loan is repaid and may be withdrawn or loaned out again to another business.

The idea of microcredit isn’t new — it has a successful track record of spurring development among those without access to traditional banks. What is new here is the pairing up of lenders and borrowers on a peer-to-peer basis, allowing lenders to see exactly what their money is used for and to rechannel it when it has been repaid. Kiva currently reports a 100% repayment rate. Though that may not last, microcredit generally boasts very low default rates. In addition, all of the money lent goes directly to the entrepreneurs; Kiva’s operating expenses are paid entirely by interest and outside donations.

The enterprise blurs the distinction between lenders and donors in an appealing way. I wasn’t sure which word to use as I wrote this post. A person lending through the site isn’t just writing a check to charity, for he fully expects to be repaid. On the other hand, he isn’t looking to make money. There’s no reason to use the site except to better others’ lives. Kiva’s identity is also hard to pin down. It’s part microfinance institution, but it also partners with other MFIs and serves as an innovative marketer for that approach to development. The whole concept is a celebration of how entrepreneurship and creativity can help do good in the world. I like that way of thinking.