Last night I was working on an article away from home and needed to reference a source I’d left there. Not wanting to lose my pace, I ended the sentence I was working on with a placeholder: “INSERT RESEARCH HERE.” I knew generally what the research was, I just needed to look up the exact figure. Typing in all caps ensured I’d catch the note in proofreading if not before. I did think at the time, though, that if the wrong draft were accidentally published I would be very embarassed.

Tonight I learned two things courtesy of Greenpeace. 1) Other writers use this all caps placeholder technique. 2) Forgetting to take them out does indeed look really, really bad.

[Via Radley.]


Over-extending myself with Google

Maybe it’s just that cool new Google products have become so commonplace as to be unworthy of mention, but I’m surprised more people aren’t excited about Google Notebook. Notebook is a handly little application for making notes of what you come across on the Web and saving the relevant links. It’s not the first program of its kind, but it’s easy to use. A small icon sits at the bottom of your browser, like this:
Open Notebook

Click on it and your Notebook opens up. Highlight text and pictures to automatically copy them into a new note, or write your own text. Here’s me adding an item to my notebook on caffeine:
Notebook in action

Everything can then be sorted or edited under a full page view, which is available from any computer.

I’ve immediately started using this as my new way of keeping track of material I want to blog about. When I come across an interesting item, I send it right to my “To Blog List” notebook. Easy.

I’m also finding it useful for researching articles. I have several to write at the moment, so I’ve created a notebook for each one. The links I need go into the relevant notebook with a short, useful description or quote to come back to later. And if my laptop dies the day before deadline, no problem. All my notes are secure on the Google servers.

I only have one complaint so far, and that is that the organization for multiple notebooks could get unwieldy over time. Right now your most recently viewed notebooks are put at the top of the list, but I haven’t seen yet what organization is given to older notebooks. A useful feature for the future might be the ability to mark some notebooks as “archived” and sort them by name or date. Having some way to export the data would be nice, too.

Nice, but not essential. I’m happy with what it offers now and hope it catches on and improves.

Go here for more information and to download the extension.


A brilliant inversion

When I said in the last post that the logic behind the name of the Starbucks Caramel Macchiato is “known only to a room full of lame marketers,” I was wrong. My decidedly non-lame friend Wendy knows the truth and reveals it in the comments:

You can have a latte macchiatto, though, right? Where the milk is poured first, then marked with foam. Macchiatto doesn’t have to do with the amount of milk, but the marking. Most people get an espresso machiatto — an espresso marked with steamed milk. But there is such a thing (outside of the siren’s realm, even) as a latte machiatto. This is where the inspiration came from, because the Caramel Machiatto (insert registered trademark sign here) is steamed milk marked with both espresso AND caramel. It’s still misleading, yes, but not quite in the way you think.

Do you realize what a brilliant inversion this is? It’s as if Starbucks was publicly admitting, “We’re not a coffee company anymore, we’re a milk and sugar company. But sometimes we’ll mark our milk and sugar drinks with coffee so you can feel good about ordering them for breakfast.” I love it! I will no longer mock the company for the silly name of this drink now that I’m aware of the genius behind it.

Wendy also reveals that Starbucks once required all its employees to wear tie dye shirts for its 25th anniversary celebration. Weird.

And lest I defame Wendy, Seattlite and coffee lover, by portraying her as an all-out Starbucks apologist, I’ll link to her eclectic list of top five coffee experiences. None of them involve caramel, frappe powder, or the whir of a super automatic espresso machine.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


A barista more bitter than his coffee

I recently wrote here about what makes being a barista such a great job. In contrast, The Roanoke Times ran an op-ed by a barista named Bruce Henry the other day entitled “10 things baristas hate about you.” The author, trying to be funny, comes off as a bit of an ass, but he’s right about some of it. Let’s take it point by point.

10. Teenagers. Bruce says hanging out in a coffee shop will never be cool. I hung out in coffee shops when I was a teenager and I was… ok, well, some of the people there were cool. And some of the most interesting people I know I met while hanging out in coffee shops. Bars have their place, but drinking a cup of coffee with your friends offers its own perfections.

9. Anything decaffeinated. I used to agree with him on this one. Then, after working nearly six months in my current coffee shop, I tried our decaf espresso for the first time. Once I dialed in the correct grind it was surprisingly good. I’ll stick to the regular stuff and still think the decaffeination process is basically molesting the bean, but I have a newfound respect for decaf.

8. Over three words to order. Sort of with him on this one. Simple is better. If you’ve got a good barista, trust him to make you a tasty drink.

7. Taking forever to order. I like answering questions because I like talking about coffee, especially if the customer is open to trying new things (i.e. being steered toward less sugar and less milk). But lollygagging at the counter while scanning the menu they should have been scanning when they first got in line? Yeah, that’s annoying.

6. The macchiato. Completely agree. The word “macchiato” is derived from the Italian for “marked,” as in espresso marked with a touch of milk. How this became Starbucks’ 20 oz caramel drink is known only to a room full of lame marketers. However it happened, it confuses every customer who wants to duplicate the Starbucks caramel macchiato at their local cafe. My favorite story is the customer I served who, even after having it explained to him that a macchiato is a tiny drink and he probably wanted a caramel latte, insisted on getting a caramel macchiato. When I gave him a demitasse of caramel, espresso, and milk, his friends were shocked he wanted such a small beverage. “Yeah,” he said defensively, “at Starbucks you get a much better value.” For him, macchiato was a mysterious essence that made his drink delicious, not a term describing the amount of milk involved.

5. Live music. I’ve never worked at a place with live music. I don’t think it would bother me, but it could disappoint me as a customer if I was expecting a chill place to talk with friends and instead found a loud concert going on. Even worse? Walking in to your favorite shop to find it’s been taken over by a politician’s campaign event.

4. Anything from a blender.
Indeed. There’s something degrading about making blended drinks, taking great shots of espresso and tossing them into a container full of frappe powder. As a fellow barista once said, “If I wanted to work at Smoothie King, I’m sure I could.”

3. Being in a hurry. Super automatic espresso machines and milk steamed by the bucketfull makes for drinks served quickly. They also make for bitterness and poor texture. If you want the former, go to one of the big chains with my blessing.

2. Tipping. I think tipping is a good practice for reasons I’ll probably write about here later. But I don’t think it should be taken for granted if the barista doesn’t earn it with skill and a pleasant personality.

1. Starbucks. I’ve written lots about the company before. I can live with the lingo if it gets people drinking espresso. I see Starbucks customers as conversion opportunities less than as annoyances.

Things that would have made my own list? Ordering soy milk (most of it doesn’t texture well). Drinks that are so big I can’t extract the shots directly into the cup. Chai that’s sweet instead of spiced.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


Murky and me in NoVa Magazine

I’m quoted a couple of times in an article by Christine O’Connor about good coffee and free wi-fi in the May issue of Northern Virginia Magazine. The first time is about why people hang out in coffee shops:

“The coffee house fulfills our need to not be alone,” says former Murky Coffee barista and aspiring coffee shop owner Jacob Grier of Arlington. “Even if we never say a word to anyone, we feel connected to our community.”

The second is about why guys like me continue to work as baristas:

“To be a barista in a quality local shop is to create countless moments of evanescent beauty,” says Grier. “The ideally extracted espresso, the well-poured latte, the repetitive rhythm in making a rush of drinks. All that makes the job wonderfully satisfying.”

So I went a little over the top (OK, a lot over the top), but what can I say? I really like my job. No matter how many times I do it, I never get tired of watching those first drops of espresso coalesce at the bottom of a cup or making a nice rosetta magically flow to the surface of a drink. And the word “evanescent” doesn’t see print nearly enough.

Other Murky regulars pop into the text and photos; note Ryan’s Michael Jordanesque tongue appearance as he concentrates on his latte art.

The article is not available online. Locally the magazine can be found in Barnes & Noble and Borders and has a cover story on forty NoVa places to go for a “frugal feast.”

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


Tabarrok’s open letter on immigration

One of the things I’ve found unsettling in the debate over immigration is the willingness for many people with liberal sensibilities to favor the poor in the US over potential immigrants who are much worse off. At the level of policy, protecting one group at the expense of another simply because the latter was born outside our borders strikes me as very illiberal and morally unjustified. Thus I was happy this morning to see this open letter on the consensus of economists on immigration from Alex Tabarrok. He writes:

While a small percentage of native-born Americans may be harmed by immigration, vastly more Americans benefit from the contributions that immigrants make to our economy, including lower consumer prices. As with trade in goods and services, the gains from immigration outweigh the losses. The effect of all immigration on low-skilled workers is very likely positive as many immigrants bring skills, capital and entrepreneurship to the American economy.

Legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration on the poorest Americans should not be addressed by penalizing even poorer immigrants. Instead, we should promote policies, such as improving our education system that enables Americans to be more productive with high-wage skills.

Alex is encouraging as many economists and social scientists as possible to sign on to the letter. Read the whole thing here.


A name in search of a drink

With the humid DC summer almost upon us, it’s time to start thinking about cool, refreshing drinks. Ayran, a salty yoghurt beverage, is one of my favorites to have in Turkish restaurants. Fortunately, it’s an easy drink to prepare at home, too. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been experimenting with making it on my own and have become addicted to the stuff.

The first step is to mix yoghurt and cold water in roughly equal proportions. This sounds, and looks, unappetizing, as the yoghurt gobs together in the hazy water. Stir it together until it’s smooth and liquidy. Low-fat yoghurt works surprisingly well; if you use it, just cut back on the water a bit and substitute an ounce or two of whole milk for thickness.

Now you have something that looks drinkable, but it’s pretty bland. Add salt, Kosher if you’ve got it, to spice it up. Be liberal with it. The first time I had ayran I could only finish half the glass; it’s an acquired taste, but once you’ve got it the saltiness becomes one of the most appealing parts. Stir in the salt and you’re finished. Sit back and enjoy your counter-intuitively delicious beverage.

So that’s ayran. Great for a hot day, but what about at night? Is there some way to make this drink alcoholic? Given current events, the cocktail practically names itself: it can only be called the “nuclear ayran.”

Coming up with liquor that tastes good with a salty yoghurt drink is harder than naming it, but last night my creative bartender friend Sean and I took a stab at this unholy prospect. The salty aspect of ayran got him thinking about margaritas. Thus the first prototype consisted of white tequila, Cointreau, ice, and ayran shaken and poured into a martini glass. Here’s a shot from my camera phone:

Nuclear ayran, first attempt

The result? Not so good. It was improved somewhat by the addition of Agnostura bitters, but was still missing something. Also, the ayran and liquor tended to separate in the martini glass, so that had to go.

For round two we poured it into a rocks glass over ice, added a splash of soda, and muddled in some basil. This was actually a decent drink, but after all these additions and manipulations the ayran was no longer expressing itself. Next time we’ll keep the soda and rocks glass, perhaps muddle something spicier (jalepenos?), and try out a different liquor. The search continues…



Surprise is the name of Paul Simon’s new album, which I learned about this evening from Tyler Cowen. I’m surprised to see it. Having gone six years since releasing You’re the One with its ending lyrics

I am heading for a place of quiet
Where the sage and sweetgrass grow
By a lake of sacred water
From the mountain’s melted snow

I thought that may have been his last full album. The NY Times review is here, song samples here. The album moves away from world music and is produced by Brian Eno, which could take some getting used to.

And here’s one more link for Paul Simon fans: “Graceland” as covered by jazz singer Erin Bode. She and her band give it a beautiful, jazzy interpretation on her recent release Over and Over. If you like the sound of this, I recommend taking the whole album for a late night drive with the windows down.


Smoking ban prompts use of smoke machines

I love irony:

SCOTLAND’S top clubs are pumping perfume onto the dancefloor after complaints from revellers about BO.

One month after the smoking ban, nightclub bosses are using scented smoke to deodorise sweaty smells formerly masked by cigarettes.

Nightspots in Glasgow, including the Garage and the Cathouse are wafting strawberry and cream air fresheners through their smoke machines.

Venue owner Donald MacLeod said his staff had started to use scented smoke to hide the pong.

He said: “We believe it gives a much better atmosphere.”

Clubber Calum Anderson, 27, of Mount Florida, Glasgow, said: “The body odour can be pretty bad.

“It’s great someone is doing something about the problem.”


Free comics, unfree superheroes

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day, a day when comic retailers all over the country give away free comic books. If you’re in the DC area, stop in for a freebie at my friend Matt Klokel’s Fantom Comics in Tenleytown. He’ll have food and raffles, too.

It’s a big week for comic releases, as DC wraps up its Infinite Crisis storyline and Marvel launches Civil War. The latter could be interesting for non-comic book readers as it ties into current political questions. In short, a tragic event involving superheroes and innocent civilians leads to government passing a Super-Human Registration Act. Some heroes support becoming registered with and subservient to the U.S. government, while others see it as dangerous infringement on their civil liberties. It is speculated that Marvel versions of Guantamo Bay, enemy combatants, and embedded reporters will emerge. I’m not a Marvel fan, but this sounds like it might just be interesting enough to pick up.

Firefox extension and comic book blogging in the same day. When did I become such a nerd?


Over-extending myself

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this since I like to think of myself as a somewhat tech-savvy guy, but I just switched my default browser to Firefox this week. I haven’t been living in the dark. For the past three years I’ve been using Slimbrowser, a nice Internet Explorer add-on that turns it into a very useful tabbed browser. It’s so good, in fact, that I liked it much better than the default version of Firefox. Rather than spending time customizing Firefox, I stuck with the program that had nearly everything I liked preconfigured.

That finally changed with the introduction of GChat, which makes the tabs in Slimbrowser dance around annoyingly when a new message arrives. So now I’m using Firefox and going a little crazy with the extensions (though not as crazy as this guy). I’ve listed what I have below, but I’m sure I’m missing out on some great ones. Any more suggestions? Leave them in the comments, please.

[Instant update: Now that I think about it, the GChat problem could be fixed by setting the maximum tab length to a low number. Oh well, I still like Firefox.]

Tab Mix Plus — This is the one extension that I couldn’t live without. No Tab Mix, no Firefox. This gives you all sorts of control over how your tabs behave. I was able to duplicate the SlimBrowser behavior with it in just a few minutes, minus the buggy GChat dancing. It also has a session restore, tab close undo, and a few other features.

Colorful Tabs — Completely non-essential, but I like it. Makes all your tabs a different color, making them a little easier to tell apart and beautifying your screen a bit.

Web Developer — I used this a lot when I was redesigning this site last year. Tons of features displaying how a web page hangs together. If you’re designing a site and can’t figure out why some aspect of it isn’t working right, this extension could save you a big headache.

MeasureIt — Another handy one for site design. Draw a box anywhere on a web page and it shows you the length and height in pixels.

Screen Grab! — Nice screen shot extension. Saves either the entire browser window, the visible portion of a web page, or an entire web page as an image.

ConQuery — Puts search options into the context (right click) menu.

No-referrer — Gives the option to open a link in a new tab without sending referrer information. Kind of esoteric, but maybe something you’ll use when you don’t want people to know how obsessively you check your site stats.

FireFTP — Haven’t actually tried this one yet, but looks like a handy browser-based FTP program.

ListZilla — Outputs a list of your Firefox extensions with links to their homepages. Useful as backup and for creating blog entries like this one.

Installing Greasemonkey is probably the next step. That opens up a whole new range of possibilities. If you have some favorite Greasemonkey scripts, feel free to leave those in the comments, too.

[Update 5/5/06: While it’s not a Firefox extension, I should have also mentioned the FoxIt pdf reader. It’s an alternative to Adobe Acrobat reader that’s a lot lighter and faster. If you hate waiting through the Adobe startup process as much as I do, you’ll love this.


Defeat the tyranny of non-RSS blogs!

While almost everyone publishes an RSS feed now, there are still a few holdouts from the the old days of Blogger who are too lazy or too curmodgeonly to turn theirs on. A few of these I’ve bookmarked and check periodically, but usually if someone doesn’t publish a feed I just don’t bother reading him.

No more. Ponyfish is a service that creates RSS feeds for sites that don’t have them. It’s very easy to use: just input the URL, click on typical links of new entries, and Ponyfish learns what new content looks like. It’s not quite as good as a real RSS feed, since the free version only updates once every four hours and on the site I tried doesn’t display content, but it’s a lot better than manually checking a bookmark every day. Try it out.

It will work for sites other than weblogs, too, as long as there’s some kind of pattern to new content links.

[Via Lifehacker.]


Big soda caves

“Caves” as a verb, not a noun. Though big soda caves (n) would be awesome.

As a way of preempting laws banning sodas in schools, big soda makers have agreed to stop selling non-diet sodas in schools across the country within a few years:

Nearly 35 million students nationwide will be affected by the deal, The Alliance for a Healthier Generation said in a news release. The agreement affects all public schools who have contracts with the distributors.

The deal affects more than just school cafeterias and vending machines. Schools that use distributors to purchase soda for sales at sporting events and fundraisers will be subject to the new restrictions, too, Carson said.

Whole milk is also on the chopping block.

Anti-obesity activists are ecstatic, of course, but it’s not clear that the withdrawal will do any good. Rogier van Bakel sums up two reasons: limiting soda consumption in schools has at best a tiny impact on obesity rates and kids will find ways of consuming what they want anyway.

While coverage of the agreement lauds it as a good thing for children’s health, it doesn’t mention anything about what it may do to school budgets. Exclusive pouring contracts are a lucrative source of funds for extracurricular activities. With soda companies cutting the best-selling options from their product lines, will they still be willing to put cash back into the schools they deal with? I’ll give a free Coke to the first person who finds an athletic activity that gets cut when the pouring contract runs out.

I don’t care whether schools sell sodas or not, but I do believe that individual districts ought to be able to weigh the trade-offs for themselves. Now, thanks to agressive regulation in some places, schools everywhere are going to be deprived of the option.