Well, It Kinda Counts Maybe?

This post is music-related, so it’s going to stand in for Friday Finds this week. The excellent news is that I found out how to get music from my library at home onto my new phone. Oh sure, it’s so simple that actual blocks of concrete can do it, but the point is I never did it with my old phones, so I had to ask the Internet how to do it.

Of course, I have 13,000 tracks sitting in my music library, and picking the subset to transfer over is a time-consuming process. But I need them there to be able to make ringtones from them, so I’ll make the sacrifice. I’m so brave, I know.

Oh hey, I haven’t told my erstwhile compatriots yet, but I’m thinking of rebooting The Coffee Thing this weekend. I should probably tell them, huh? I just want a reason to visit Bad Wolf again before it goes away at the end of the summer.

Another Idle Day

I have no gee whiz techie things to post today, because no science has happened recently. I had no political or current events things yesterday, because my Liberal Hive Mind subscription is past due, so I’ve not received the latest Outrage Update. As soon as I bring my account current, I am sure I will have many wonderful things to discuss.

Still, you get this drivel, so it’s not a total loss.

MorF? ForM? Who Cares?

I recently read Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Ancillary Justice Cover

The story takes place in a universe dominated by a religious empire (the Radch) that has expanded aggressively, using (among other things) sentient starships which interact with their human commanders through human bodies called ancillaries. The narrator, Breq, is a former ancillary from a particular echelon of ancillaries of the warship Justice of Toren, platoon of its ancillaries, but is now a single individual. Breq’s sole goal now is to exact revenge against the person who effectively destroyed her as a ship and left only the one ancillary.

The story itself is a little slow to get rolling, but ultimately becomes a compelling space opera, weaving together Breq’s current journey with the slow reveal of what happened to the Justice of Toren. What I (and many reviewers) find so fascinating about the book, though, is that the Radch empire uses a language (which presumably reflects a culture) that does not mark gender. Breq and the other Radchaai characters refer to everybody using feminine pronouns–“she,” “her”–even while describing or otherwise indicating that particular individuals are male. Thus, on a planet outside the empire, whose native language does recognize gender differences, Breq will listen for cues from natives as to whether a particular person is male or female, while Breq’s internal narration consistently uses only feminine pronouns.

At first, this was a little odd. In the beginning, the use of “her” and “she” in conjunction with a description of a character as “probably male” (Breq’s not very certain all the time) jars one out of the story a bit. About 50 pages in, though, it struck me that gender didn’t matter. Whether a given character had male or female genitalia, or whether they identified as one gender or another, was entirely irrelevant to the story, because (a) most of the action didn’t have anything to do with sex, romance, love, or anything that might implicate gender or gender roles; and (b) even in those few instances where relationships were relevant, the gender(s) of the participants were not.

I think that when we read a book, we look for cues in the text to help us develop an internal image of the characters, and that’s why the use of non-gender in this book was a bit jarring. But when it finally clicked for me, I realized that my internal visual image of the characters was irrelevant to the story and to my enjoyment thereof. The use of feminine pronouns dispelled the “default” maleness for characters whose sex is not specified (because–again–it doesn’t matter).

I am sure there are people who think the genderless approach is a gimmick, or who will bristle at not knowing exactly which equipment a particular character is sporting between their legs (or who will be offended at the idea that a male-sexed character–whose maleness might be cued in the text–would be referred to as “she”). Some might think it distracts and detracts from the storytelling. In a lesser story, maybe any of that distraction would have been a negative; but for me at least, the transition from catching myself constantly wondering and adjusting my internal image of the characters to realizing that I knew exactly what was going on and it didn’t matter whether a particular character was a man or a woman or something else added a cool dimension to the whole experience. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books. (Because isn’t everything at least a trilogy these days? Ancillary Sword is already out, and Ancillary Mercy is coming this year.)

Game Night Recap (Tuesday, April 21, 2015)

We had a small group last night. Jim begged off, citing some nonsense about “my wife’s birthday.” (Whatevs.) Dave is on Impending Baby Watch, so he decided to stick close to home. Ken arrived first, and for a time, it looked like it might just be the two of us – and then, just as he was breaking out Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage for the two of us to play, JR and Jesse arrived. None of the other seminarians (whose names also begin with J, strangely) showed up, so it was just the four of us.

As is customary whenever Ken comes to Game Night, we did not play Titan. (This is also customary when Ken does not come to Game Night.)

Game 1: Rise to Power

JR brought a new game, Rise to Power, a card game of city building and expansion from an Australian two-man game company called Rule & Make. The game mechanics are simple: Everyone starts with a Power Plant and a couple of cards representing different values and colors of PRISM (energy), and builds a grid of city districts around it. At the end of he game, districts are worth a specified number of points, to which players add any “agenda” goals they managed to obtain during the course of play. Most points (shocking, I know) wins.

We played with the expansions that JR got with the game, including CEOs. Each player was given a CEO with two powers: a one-use power and a passive power that came into effect after the one-use power was triggered and stayed in effect for the remainder of the game. Ken’s CEO’s passive power gave him a lot of extra Action Points to work with, and as a result, for most of the game, he was running away with it. I managed a highly lucrative final turn, though, and managed to pull out a victory. [Victory Lap!] We all agreed that the CEOs are not properly balanced, and the game would play better without them.

All told, including rules reading, the game took us less than 90 minutes. The game can hold up to six people, but the consensus was there would be too much downtime with more than four. Nonetheless, we all enjoyed it and would play it again.

Game 2: Il Vecchio

Il Vecchio is an old favorite from Rudiger Dorn, published by Tasty Minstrel Games. (Their website is under construction, so the link goes to their BoardGameGeek page.)

In Il Vecchio, players send family members to towns around the Tuscan countryside to gather followers (Assassin, Monk, or Soldier tokens), favors (carriage and bishop tokens), money, and scroll tokens. With the proper combinations of followers and money, a player can place a family member in a position of influence in one of three provinces – but as the provinces fill up, the value of the next position declines while the cost to place there rises. The provinces also provide special single-use powers. Using scrolls (and possibly money), a player can place a family member on one of two tracks in Florence – the city track, which grants a favor the player can use for the rest of the game, or the nobility track, which grants end-game bonus points.

The game mechanics are interesting. The type of token obtained in a given town is determined by a “Middleman” marker; when used, the marker then moves clockwise to the next appropriate town on the board, meaning planning ahead is crucial. As each family member performs an action, it is laid on its side and cannot be used again until the player uses an action to “recover” – that is, to stand up all their family members. A bishop token allows the player to prevent the Middleman from moving and let the family member remain active.

At certain points along the province and Florence tracks, placing a family member results in the player taking a Medici token. Each Medici token has an immediate effect that usually screws up everybody’s planning, and counts as a victory point for the player who took it. The Medici tokens also act as the game clock – when the last one is taken, the players have final turns, and then count their scores.

The mechanics work in such a way that everybody feels frustrated at some point, usually because you have just missed an opportunity by one turn and someone has moved something out from under you. Money is hard to come by; it takes multiple turns to gather the tokens you need, and in the meantime, other players are likely to disrupt your careful planning. There are limited opportunities (using starting bonus powers and Florence city powers) to create an engine of sorts, but this is not really an engine-building game.

Once again, Ken appeared to be running away with the game, due to a starting bonus that kept him in carriage and bishop tokens and provided a stream of money. JR, Jesse, and I all felt stymied at multiple points. In the end, Ken did win, but by a margin of only four points. The rest of us were one point apart. I took third place, which frankly surprised me, because I had thought I was much farther behind.

All in all, a low-key game night, with one good and one great game.

Hi There Again

I’m going to try something that I hope will pan out: regular blogging. I’m setting a schedule that ideally will make me more likely to write more often.

  • Sunday: Current Events – news, politics, issues of the day
  • Monday: Science and Technology – gee-whiz exciting stuff
  • Tuesday: (Off)
  • Wednesday: Tuesday Game Night Recap – who attended, what games were played, occasional victory laps
  • Thursday: Culture, Pop & Otherwise – movies, video games, comics, books, possible spoilers
  • Friday: Music Discovery – back to my “Friday Finds,” new bands or old favorites
  • Saturday: (Off)

I will be alternating Sunday one week with Monday the next; Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I hope to do weekly. I’m not going to make myself crazy trying to stay on schedule, but I’m hoping this approach will lead to a steady stream of my brain thinkings flowing into the Internets. Because who doesn’t want that?

The Coffee Project 2: Electric Boogaloo

This week’s adventure took us to the wilds of Ravenswood and North Lincoln Avenue. Only two stops this time – I think three may have been a bit of an overreach last week.

Ron is out of town, and Jim had a family errand to run, so today’s cast consisted of myself and Valerie, who is, for some arcane reason, married to Jim.

On to the reports!

Location #1: The Perfect Cup, 4700 North Damen

“The Perfect Cup” is a bold, ambitious name to take, and one that I imagine is quite hard to live up to. Unfortunately, I don’t think this place quite qualifies. The morning got off to an inauspicious start when we ordered, only to learn that the shop is cash-only – a detail that was not mentioned in the Chicagoist piece that prompted this whole project. The nearest ATM decided to break down, but fortunately there was another nearby. Still, in retrospect it seems this may have been a sign or omen.

The shop itself is very spacious and comfortable, taking up two storefronts on the corner of Damen and Lawrence. It’s a warm, inviting space that works really well as a neighborhood non-alcoholic watering hole. We saw a variety of people walking in – bearded men with toddlers in arms, bicyclists, the usual assortment of young urbanites working on laptops. (Wi-fi comes free with any purchase.) A group of five people convened around a low table in one room for some kind of committee or community group meeting. Nonetheess,

But the coffee, sad to say, was nothing special. I started with an iced coffee. The barista didn’t know anything about the beans, only that they were a dark roast from Seattle’s Caffe Umbria. It was… fine, I guess? Maybe I expected too much – iced is never the best way to drink coffee – but still, whether it’s the beans or the brewing process, there was very little going on with this cup. Valerie had a cafe au lait, which she reported was pretty blah.

I followed up with an espresso which (unlike all the espresso last week) was not served on a plank with a side of sparkling water. I suppose it wasn’t necessary, because the espresso itself was watery enough. It was so weak that I could barely taste the natural bitterness I expect from an espresso. Valerie tasted it and said, “Yeah, we can make better at home.”

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Location #2: Bad Wolf Coffee, 3722 North Lincoln

Bad Wolf Coffee lies almost exactly opposite The Perfect Cup along multiple axes. The space is small, with no seating. Customers stand around a single long table or at the counter. Despite that – which means, of course, that the shop is not suitable for extensive lingering – I really liked the place. Maybe it was the Ramones playing as background music when we walked in. (I asked the owner if it was a tribute to Tommy Ramone, who just died last week, and he had no idea. Coincidence? In a shop called “Bad Wolf,” with a door painted like a TARDIS, you can never be sure.)

There’s also a very agreeable communal atmosphere. People are pleasant as they share the tabletop, and recommend whichever baked item they happen to be enjoying to any stranger who seems to be dithering.

Because, did I mention the pastries? Bad Wolf is a one-man operation, and that one man happens to be an accomplished pastry chef. He makes a variety of goodies every day, and, uh, wow. Valerie had something eclair-ish (eclairoid? eclairean?) with what seemed to be a butter cream filling, and I had a canele, which was a little cake with a crunchy caramelized outer crust. There were a couple of other items on offer as well, but we did not sample them.

“But what about the coffee?” I hear you cry. This was another area in which Bad Wolf was extremely different from The Perfect Cup. Both Valerie and I tried the espresso, and it was excellent. I make no claims to be an espresso aficionado, but this cup was sharp and strong with just the right acridity. It complemented the canele very nicely.

I finished the visit with a cup of Bad Wolf’s straight-up brewed coffee. The owner said it was Ethopian – specifically Idido, which is a reference either to a town or a coffee grower (Idido Union) in the Yirgacheffe region. He said it had orange blossom notes with a hint of brown sugar (which becomes more maple syrup-tasting when iced). If you read last week’s post, you know my view of tasting notes. Once he had said “orange blossom,” that’s what I was going to taste, and though it had a sweet undertone I didn’t really get “brown sugar.” Valerie tasted it and pronounced it “very mellow”; I have to agree. This was one excellent cup of coffee.

Of the five shops I’ve visited in the past two weeks, Bad Wolf is probably my favorite. No, you can’t sit and schmooze or “work” over a string of cups of coffee. But if I lived closer, I would be in there all the time – not for long each time, maybe, but often.

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We didn’t get to a third stop on this trip. We both favored discretion over hypercaffeination. I think I may take a break next week and regroup the following weekend for the third installment. Stay tuned!

The Coffee Project, Part the First

Last week, I saw an article touting the “18 best coffee shops in Chicago.” (It turns out the article is from March, but in a world where Andy Grffith’s death announcement can make the rounds this week, two years after he died, it’s understandable that it might come up again.)

Anyway, I looked at the list and thought to myself, “Challenge accepted.” Visiting all of these coffee places seemed like a research project for which I was ideally suited, due to my appreciation of good coffee and my willingness to divert myself with completely useless activities.

Through the miracle of Facebook, I enlisted a crew of irregulars who expressed greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm for joining me on this quest. I had originally planned it as a one-a-week project over 18 weeks (I did the math for you); but looking at the map of locations, it became clear that some of the shops were close enough to accommodate multiple stops.

Today the Grand Project began. Three of us met in a suburban parking lot, piled into a single vehicle, and set forth into the city. Herewith, the first report.

Dramatis Personae
Dan, your humble narrator
Jim, who has separately chronicled the day’s events here
Ron, the self-proclaimed “least hipster” of the three of us, and that’s saying something

Location #1: Gaslight Coffee Roasters, 2385 N. Milwaukee

We arrived at the door a few minutes early, as the place doesn’t open until 9:00 on Sundays. Inside, the smallish room is sparsely appointed, with hardwood floors, exposed-brick walls, eclectic wall decor (old blueprints, a taxidermy duck, a mounted deer’s head, an old barbershop sign), and simple furniture.

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Ron had a cup of Gaslight’s regular drip coffee (I don’t know the roast). Jim sampled the espresso, which he declared unambiguously the best espresso he had ever tasted. He enjoyed it so much that he had a second cup. I started with a cold-brew iced coffee, but based on Jim’s euphoria, I decided to try the espresso as well. (Jim doubled down with another espresso himself.) I’m not sure why, but all the espresso we saw today was served with a small glass of sparkling water. Is this a Thing now?

As we were ordering the first round, a tray of fresh-baked goods was brought in, so for round two, I had a blueberry pastry, and Ron had a cherry version of the same thing.

The iced coffee was quite good, with a subtle citrus tone. Being cold-brewed, it did not suffer any weakening from being iced. I believe it was Guatemalan, but I hadn’t quite decided what notes I was taking. (It was my first coffee of the day. Sue me.)

I did, however, take note of the conversation topics:

Paris – Ron and family are heading there in a couple of days; while Jim went a couple of years ago, so they discussed housing and restaurant options. My only visit to Paris was in 2000, for a three-day business trip.

Cameras – I am considering getting a good camera, so we talked about DSLR versus mirrorless. My Galaxy S4 takes decent photos, but I want MORE BETTER.

The inherent phoniness of tasting notes – yeah, when I said “citrus” up there, I was totally making it up, but now if you drink the same thing, you’ll taste citrus. (Or you’ll come up with your own phony descriptor.) This part of the conversation also involved Jim’s assertion (which will be tested) that in a truly blind test, people often cannot distinguish between red and white wines.

Location #2: Ipsento, 2035 N. Western

At first glance, Ipsento is a tiny space mostly occupied by the coffee bar and a separate sales counter, but there’s a staircase at the back leading to an additional small room with tables and a couple of bench seats. Furnishings are eclectic – perhaps the remnants of yard sales and estate sales, and the wall decorations are old window frames and doors. Still, the space is warm and comfortable.

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The coffee choices were numerous and hence difficult to decide. Ron went with a Panamanian run through an aeropress – essentially a French press; I’m not sure what makes it different. Ipsento had two espresso varieties – a “Wildfire,” which was portrayed as “smoky” and a Guatemalan which sounded pretty similar to the espresso at Gaslight. Stricken with indecision, Jim took the obvious tack of having one of each. I went with one of the house specialties, the eponymous “Ipsento,” which is a latte with coconut milk, honey and a touch of cayenne. That’s it in the photo. I am normally a black coffee guy, but someone had to try a froufrou drink – and the Chicagoist piece had specifically mentioned this one – so I made the sacrifice. It was very tasty, though had I realized how rich and filling it would be, I might have foregone the breakfast sandwich.

Oh, did I not mention the breakfast sandwiches? Ipsento has several of them, and a variety of lunch sandwiches as well. All are named for authors. Jim went for the Ernest Hemingway, which consisted of salmon, egg, cream cheese and capers on a large croissant; and Ron and I had the Mark Twain: egg, tomato, basil, and cheddar cheese, also on a croissant.

As I mentioned, the Ipsento was filling, and the sandwich was even more so. Jim was beginning to think that four espressos in short succession might not have been the best idea for his stomach, so we had to decide: call it a day, or hit one more location? We chose to be Men of Adventure, and set out for the next place.

Location #3: Buzz: Killer Espresso, 1644 N. Damen

Had we been thinking a little more clearly at the beginning of today’s venture, we might have gone here first and worked our way north. Buzz is just north of the North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection in Wicker Park, which meant that by the time we got there, parking was in scarce supply.

Buzz is a bit larger than Gaslight and Ipsento, with a very pleasant- (and full-) looking outdoor patio. Inside, again, a very simple clean establishment with a few two-person tables along one side and a four-top at the back (which was conveniently empty for us).

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All three of us, perhaps feeling a little coffee-choice fatigue, elected to go with a pour-over of Sidama Chire. As we sat around discussing blogging, we concocted more made-up tasting notes: citrus (again), fruity, bright, and Ron said nutty.

The baristae were clearly very passionate about their product and their work. The pour-over technique involved pre-measured cans of beans, ground immediately before use; filters soaked ahead of the pour with water at the exact proper temperature; and the pictured single-cup… whatever you call that device that fit over the top of the cup. In any event, it was a really good cup of coffee.

Conclusion of Part the First

And with that, the first leg of the journey was over. In Ron’s car on the way back to the burbs, we agreed it had been an auspicious start to the venture, and that we would have to figure out when to do the next one. Ron will be out of town for a couple of weeks. He valiantly said we could go on without him in the interim, but I think I spotted the glint of a tear in his eye, so we may wait.

I had originally decided that I was not going to try to rank the coffee shops. And in fact, I had such widely varying drinks that it would be extremely difficult to compare them. However, I did find one objective measure for comparison: ink – how many tattoos the workers displayed. (I will not make aesthetic judgments, and I didn’t get a good enough look at the clientele to determine the customer ink quotient.) Therefore, in high to low tattoo-quantity order, I rank these first three establishments as follows:

Gaslight
Buzz
Ipsento

In the next installment (unless we decide to go elsewhere), we will visit a shop that makes a bold assertion; a place that may be of special interest to Doctor Who fans; and perhaps … a bicycle shop?