Equal time

As long as we’re talking religion, I might as well link to this story about a dispute between a Utah coffee shop and the LDS church that doesn’t like its tee shirts.

Sci-fi analogy to the shabbos goy: If a Mormon could have a non-Mormon friend drink coffee and somehow transport the wakefulness into his own body, would that be ok?

[Via BoingBoing.]

Mormon cafe culture?


Baby I will be your shabbos goy

Jesus said to his Jews: “The law was for servants—love God as I love him, as his son! What are morals to us sons of God!”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s no secret that I’m far from Christian, but if there’s anything that could make me appreciate the religion it’s Nietzsche’s interpretation. This post, coupled with my weakly expressed Jewish heritage, should explain why.

Recently I came across an interesting post about the amount of energy wasted using an elevator when stairs are available. Given the size and weight of elevators, I’ve always assumed elevators are massive energy hogs and take stairs when I can. In truth, thanks to the use of counterweights, elevators are actually very efficient. Many also employ regenerative braking that converts friction into usable electricity. All things considered, using elevators is actually pretty far down the list of environmental sins. But more interesting than this fact is the mention of a contrivance I’d never heard of: the Sabbath elevator.

Talmudic law prohibits the doing of useful work on the Sabbath. This has been interpreted to include the operation of electrical devices, making life particularly difficult for Jewish robots. It creates obstacles for real people too, leading to the invention of the Sabbath elevator.

Elevators are problematic because they require users to push buttons to operate them. To get around this need, areas with high Jewish populations have created Sabbath elevators programmed to run constantly, stopping on every floor on a preset schedule. This allows observant users to get on and off the elevator without having to interact with it in any way.

It’s actually a bit more complicated than this, depending on how observant one actually is. For example, one must beware of elevators with automatic sensors that could be accidentally set off. Also, some Sabbath elevators disable the regenerative braking, ensuring that a passenger’s weight on the elevator doesn’t produce any useful work.

As mentioned above, elevators are very efficient so the Sabbath versions are silly if not terribly wasteful. However there are other fascinatingly ingenious workarounds available, such as this ridiculous wooden lamp. The difficulty with using a lamp on the Sabbath is that one can’t turn it off when light is no longer wanted and leaving it on all the time isn’t very pleasant either. The solution? A wooden lampshade with opaque panels that can be rotated into place to turn the lamp “off.” Of course the bulb is still burning and wasting energy under the shade, so it’s not really off at all, but this is religiously preferred to flipping a switch.

Finally, as a last resort there’s the shabbos goy, a gentile who does work for observant Jews on the Sabbath. Non-Jews can do things that a Jew can’t do. So an observant Jew can’t turn on the air conditioner, but he can not-so-subtly complain about the heat until his gentile friend does.

And this is what I always found distasteful in Judaism — aside from the gefilte fish, another Sabbath workaround. Judaism doesn’t seem to prohibit these kind of acts because of their moral or practical implications, but because of their symbolism; it’s perfectly fine to benefit from air conditioning as long as it’s not a Jew hitting the on switch. Though the Jewish side of my family is extremely reform, this obedience to a plethora of traditional rules always struck me as more burdensome than meaningful. Thus my affinity for the Nietzsche quote above. (This is a purely personal preference. If you’re Jewish and find meaning in following the rules, follow them all you want.)

I’m not writing this as an unprovoked rant against Judaism. I have a serious question: can an environmentalist observant Jew consistently apply his ethics? Covering light bulbs with boxes instead of turning them off hardly seems like a good idea for an environmentalist. Perhaps the general prohibition on operating electrical devices does result in observant Jews having a net energy savings on the Sabbath, but it’s actions on the margin that matter. Given that the applicable rules for Jews are more symbolic than moral, could some flexibility be granted for a good cause? Or alternatively, is the flexibility embodied in the creative workarounds mentioned above the real problem?

(I’m aware that that the Sabbath prohibitions are intended to respect God’s resting on the seventh day. To which my friend Chad says, “Yes, but God got a lot more done the other six days of the week than I do.” Exactly! If the Old Testament God had GMail and Bloglines, he wouldn’t have been able to rest on the seventh day either.)

(Also, if this post doesn’t elicit some comment from Jeff, nothing will.)


Who owns your teeth?

Participants in the unexpectedly long manicure debate from long ago will be interested in this iLiberty story about a unlicensed dentist performing bargain work in his garage. His clients love him. The authorities arrested him.

At aBetterEarth, we’re writing about a lot of energy innovations: a sweet new battery, a new process that turns CO2 into fuel, and the potential advantages of biopropane over heavily subsidized ethanol. Also, hunting the polar bear, the FDA gets closer to approving cloned foods, and how the narrow focus on global warming threatens other environmental victories.


Blogroll update

After a long period of neglect I’ve finally updated the blogroll on the right, deleting some old sites, adding some new ones, and generally making it better reflect what I actually read. There are some good sites on there, so check it out.

I also deleted the “Friends” category and shifted almost everyone in it to “Wonks.” The distinction was making less and less sense. After three years of living in DC all my friends with blogs are a little bit wonky anyway, so it’s no real loss.


Make mail more like email

Here’s a simple suggestion: why can’t physical mail addresses be more like email addresses?

Using a physical mailing address creates a big hassle every time I move. I have to contact all of my friends and family, the magazines I subscribe to, the online businesses I buy from, and the credit cards, banks, etc. that send me statements to let them all know that I’ve moved. This always takes a while and I invariably forget to tell everyone.

Contrast this with moving a website or email address to a new server. When I switch servers, I don’t have to notify everyone who emails me, reads my site, or links to my content that I’m moving. They use the address they’ve always used and the Domain Name System (DNS) automatically associates the domain name that people remember with the numerical IP address that computers use to communicate. I just have to tell one entity about the move (the DNS registry) and it takes care of the problem for everyone else.

It seems like computing technology is cheap enough now that our postal system should work the same way. Why should we have to remember cumbersome physical addresses and update all our contacts when we move? It would be a lot easier to simply use the equivalent of a domain name address and associate it in a database with a physical mailing location. Call it a Postal Name System (PNS). Everyone could have their own, easily memorized address to use for life. When people move, they just notify the PNS of the change and their postal name keeps functioning seamlessly, associating their postal address with their new physical location.

In other words, there’s no longer any reason why the physical locations where we live and work should have anything to do with the postal addresses people use to send us stuff.

This seems like it would be especially useful to businesses who now have to incur the costs of printing new stationery, business cards, signs, etc., when they move. People could also register multiple addresses and associate them with different physical locations. For example, someone starting a business out of their home could register an address that initially sends their work related mail there. Later, if the business expands to its own office, the address could be rerouted to the new location without having to print new materials or notify customers of the change.

Such a system might also be able to map email addresses on to postal addresses, if people choose that option. I’d love for friends to be able to just write jacob@jacobgrier.com on a letter, drop it in a mail box, and have it arrive at my house.

The US Postal Service already does something like this with mail forwarding. Its machines scan a written address, check to see if the person at that address has requested forwarding, and if he has slaps a label with the new address on the package. This is all translated into printed bar codes for machines to read. With this capability already in place, it seems like it would only need to be ramped up to accommodate a Postal Name System for associating addresses with physical locations.

ZIP codes were a very smart way of making mail delivery faster, but they have their roots in a system designed in 1943. Since then the use of postal codes has expanded but the way we address our mail hasn’t fundamentally changed. Perhaps that’s because we’re stuck with a postal monopoly, because this idea seems completely feasible with existing technology.


Vandy fashion update

Delta Delta DeltaIf the epidemic of pastel Ugg boots of several years ago proved anything, it’s that Vanderbilt women should beware of strange fashion trends from island nations. That lesson must have faded from institutional memory. As Chad reports from our weekend excursion to Nashville for our college’s annual Rites of Spring concert, a new atrocity has swept across the Vanderbilt fashion landscape:

The muumuu is perhaps the worst of all worlds: it is like placing a price ceiling on attractiveness: everyone above a 5 becomes a 5 by wearing one, but no one below a 5 can become more attractive by wearing one… I’m told that no one on campus wore this before Friday, and that it was some kind of spontaneous mass early adoption. Some wore them with bows. Some wore them with belt buckles. Why? WHY??? Try a google image search on muumuu: do you notice a theme? People in muumuus look (a) very, very large, (b) very, very large and pregnant, or (c) very, very large and male. One of the pictures even has a cow wearing a muumuu. If you have a figure, or anything even close to resembling an approximation of a figure, why would you destroy it so thoughtlessly? Surely there are other ways to feel comfortable on a breezy day? What happened to the summer dress? The bikini top? Even a t-shirt?

To avoid sounding sexist, I’ll concede that Vandy men’s fashion looks just as dumb. But Vandy frat boys always look dumb, so this isn’t really news.

In the meantime, my mental image of Vanderbilt women is going to be marred for a long time by the infamous King Size Homer.


It’s true I like burritos

I used to get paid to do what?

A recent online survey conducted by Krups, the coffee experts and sponsors of the upcoming 2007 United States Barista Championship, revealed some interesting results. A national sample of 2,000 Americans* were asked, “What is a Barista?” Out of the five possible responses they were provided, approximately 1/3 of the coffee crazed Americans did indeed know that it is a barista who prepares and serves that cup of joe every morning.

As for the rest of the country, the results to the question “what is a barista?” were a bit more colorful:

— 11% reported it was a lawyer from England
— 7% thought it was someone who prepares alcoholic beverages
— 6% said it was a fashionable garment
— 1% reported that it was a person who loves burritos
— 41% said they did not know

The first response is more impressive than my old job and there have been times when I could have gotten away with claiming it. The second is technically correct in Italian. I am not, nor have I ever been, a fashionable garment.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


Nashville police always get their man

Or somebody’s man. Or a man, anyway.

I’m off to Nashville this weekend to toss the Aerobie, hang out, and feel awkwardly old at Rites of Spring, Vanderbilt’s annual outdoor music festival. I’ll probably put in some coffee and wi-fi time while I’m there, but this may break my streak of daily posting. Barring false arrest, I’ll be back on Monday.


The point of tipping

A couple of weeks ago Helena Echlin, a writer for the food website CHOW, interviewed me for an advice column about the etiquette of tipping baristas. I get the opening quote:

Jacob Grier, a barista at Baked and Wired in Washington, DC, and cowriter of the blog Smelling the Coffee, says he tries to tip a dollar per drink. “You tip a bartender if he creates a good rapport, so why not tip a barista for the same?”

I actually said quite a bit more than that, but it beats my WSJ lead of “make sure it coats your tongue.” Not surprisingly, I do advocate tipping baristas, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. And since I’m no longer actively working in a coffee shop I can’t be accused of letting self-interest bias my opinion.
Continue reading “The point of tipping”


Organic coffee in jeopardy

I just learned of this story via the Counter Culture Coffee weblog. A recent ruling by the USDA threatens organic certification for co-ops of coffee growers and farmers of other crops. Organic certification of a farm requires expensive inspection each year. This isn’t practical for the numerous small farmers in developing counties, so a regime of partial inspection has been allowed in place of inspection of every individual farm. Salon sums it up:

Until now, however, there has been a special provision for “grower groups” that made certification practical for farmer cooperatives in the Third World, whose memberships can reach into the thousands. Because of the immense logistical demands of inspecting every farm in a large co-op, a compromise was reached: An organic inspector would randomly visit only a portion of the group’s farms each year, usually 20 percent. The grower groups would then self-police the remainder through a manager who made sure they followed the rules. The following year, an inspector would return and visit another 20 percent of the farms. After five years, all farms would be inspected.

The new ruling appears to eliminate this compromise, requiring every farm to be inspected. This probably means that lots of coffee growers are going to give up on certification and return to selling their beans on the commodity market, a loss both to farmers and to coffee lovers. For many crops it’s also probably going to give an advantage to big plantations. I have nothing against big farms, but I doubt most organic consumers want their purchases to have this effect.

This is the problem with relying on the USDA for organic certification. The agency has succeeded admirably in branding the organic label, but ultimately the agency represents the interests of American agriculture, not of consumers. A consumer-centric certification agency would never make a ruling like this. I have to wonder about the internal politics that led to this decision.

Supposedly, the ruling came about in response to a discovery that a co-op in Mexico was violating organic standards. Perhaps some reform is in order, but eliminating co-op inspection seems like a huge overreaction. After all, no system of inspection is 100% accurate. The question the USDA should consider is not what kind of inspections get closest to 100% accuracy, but rather what trade-offs consumers are willing to make in order to support co-op farming. I feel confident that the vast majority of organic buyers would much rather accept a little uncertainty than cut small producers out of the market entirely.

Hopefully pressure from consumer groups will force the USDA to reconsider its decision. If not, alternative certification based on the reputation of private buyers, such as Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade label, might become the best alternative. These brands don’t have nearly the market power as organic certification does, but in the long run competing, private certification might prove much more effective than certification by government agency.

Update 4/19/07: Here’s a letter to sign.]

[Cross-posted at Smelling the Coffee.]


Liberty Tavern opens in Clarendon

Last night was the official opening of Liberty Tavern, the much anticipated new restaurant in the historic building that used to house the Clarendon Alliance. I’ve been eager to try the place, in part because I really want to like a restaurant with that name, and also because it’s located right at the center of my neighborhood. A few friends and I dropped in last night for drinks and dinner and left very happy.

From the restaurant’s website:

Opening in a historic building in the heart of Clarendon in April 2007, The Liberty Tavern will feature modern American cuisine in its upstairs dining room and downstairs bar, along with a diverse wine list, creative specialty cocktails and a great selection of premium draft and bottled beer. The Liberty Tavern’s comfortable ambiance will be enhanced by warm, hospitable service, and whether you’re joining us for a round of drinks in the bar, a casual midweek supper with your children, or a special evening with friends and family, you’re sure to feel at home.

Liberty Tavern gets two things right that lots of restaurants mess up: beer and coffee. I must have missed their bottled beer list, but they have about ten on draft and most of them are pretty good. A spicy Belgian ale of some kind would be great in place of Miller Lite or Pabst, their two low end beers, but other styles are well represented. The coffee comes from the always excellent Counter Culture. Neighboring Murky Coffee is helping them with a French press program, while a single group La Marzocco handles the espresso. I didn’t have any coffee last night, but it’s great to see a restaurant taking it so seriously.

The menu is mostly salads, pizzas, grilled meats, and fish. The meats sounded great, but since I just quit my job last week pizza was a little bit more in my price range. I ordered a duck confit, blue cheese, pear, and arugula pizza that was delicious alongside a bubbly Bell’s Oberon wheat ale.

Dessert sounded too good to pass up. There were some intriguing ones on offer, but I went for the indulgent devil’s food cake with house made chocolate ice cream. A little small, but very decadent, especially paired up with a rich pint of Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout.

Liberty Tavern is a great addition to the neighborhood and I’m looking forward to many return trips. Along with recently opened EatBar, it’s turning Clarendon into a sweet place to be for people who like great food and drink in a relaxed, laid back atmosphere.

[Cross-posted at EatFoo.]


Blogging for iLiberty

Because four blogs isn’t enough, I’m now writing for a fifth. What else would I be doing with my underemployment? iLiberty is the sister website to A Better Earth and explores issues of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and paternalistic government. My first post is about the strange persistence of blue laws and this is the site’s RSS feed.

Meanwhile at A Better Earth, we’re looking at subsidies, subsidies, subsidies… for watermen in the Chesapeake, for hydrogen power, for biofuel, and for palm oil. Also, why not to ban the bulb, a car that runs on used fryer oil, and an X-Prize for automobiles.

Finally, at EatFoo, toasting the spring with a caffe shakerato.


Shakerato for the summer

The warm spring and summer weather hasn’t hit DC yet, but it’s sure to do so soon. That means it’s time to start thinking about iced coffee drinks. Even for a coffee lover like me, there are days in DC when a hot cup of coffee doesn’t sound so appealing. I’m a purist, so the heavily sweetened, artificially flavored frappuccino type stuff doesn’t cut it. Iced americanos are nice, but my favorite is the caffe shakerato.

Caffe shakeratos are available all over the place in Italy, but rarely seen in the US. Perhaps that’s because Italy doesn’t share America’s absurd history of alcohol regulations that tends to keep bars and coffee shops distinctly separate entities here. This drink requires a cocktail shaker, an item most coffee shops are unlikely to have on hand.

To make the drink, pour two shots of espresso and half an ounce of simple syrup over ice into the cocktail shaker. The sugar provides a little bit of cover, but since this drink is almost all espresso it’s important to get a good shot. Shake it up well to aerate the espresso and melt some of the ice. Strain it into a cordial glass or a chilled demitasse to complete the drink.

The shaking creates a big, frothy head, the simple syrup provides a bit of sweetness, and the espresso gives the drink a strong, straightforward coffee flavor. Delicious and refreshing!

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 4/16/07.]


Aikido photos

Yesterday’s wet and chilly weather was hardly ideal for our aikido demo, but after last week’s snow and wind even this felt good. Slippery mats? No problem. More photos below the break…

Heaven and Earth throw

My stuff was simpler than the above “heaven and earth” throw, like this escape and throw from an arm grab.

Imagination time! Obviously something happened between those two photos. Pretend it was awesome.

This fall and pin was actually kind of fun on the slick mat.

Disarming a guy attacking with a stick. Useful in parts of the country where stick attacks are common.

Bokken on bokken action!