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!

Robyn Hitchcock @ Evanston SPACE, 10/14/12

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Had a chance to see Robyn Hitchcock perform last night at S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston. It’s a great venue in general – small, intimate, nice acoustics. It made last night’s audience comfortable enough that someone called out “How you doing, Robyn?” as he walked through the room to get to the stage. (He didn’t answer, just held up a “wait a second” finger, sorted out his mugs of soy milk and coffee, put on his harmonica holder and started the first song.)

The intimacy of the venue is well-suited to Hitchcock’s style. As he plays and sings, he looks around the room, staring intently at various people. (That’s how it seems anyway. He’s undoubtedly concentrating on the music and can barely see whoever is in his line of sight.) He stops one song in the middle to adjust his guitar tuning. His between-song banter is conversational, albeit not interactive.

Speaking of that banter… Like many of Hitchcock’s lyrics, it’s not so much stream as whitewater rapids of consciousness. He free-associates his way around the music, conducting both sides of several conversations between Holmes and Watson and talking about Devonshireshireshire and the history of airplane toilets. It’s impossible to remember most of it, but a couple of lines stuck with me (albeit possibly paraphrased):

“Under socialism all guitar strings are in tune with one another; under capitalism, each guitar string is in tune only with itself.”

“This baby is about how songs are made.”

After a really great set, Hitchcock went off for a few minutes and came back for a four-song encore. As he said “These are some songs from my record collection.” All covers, all clearly influential on his own music. (You can almost draw a straight line from All Tomorrow’s Parties to half the Hitchcock repertoire.)

Hitchcock has played at S.P.A.C.E. previously, and I will be keeping my eyes open for another show there. I wish you all could have been there.

 

Setlist:

Only The Stones Remain
I Got The Hots For You
The Wreck of the Arthur Lee
The Museum of Sex
Dismal City
No, I Don’t Remember Guilford
English Girl
Flavour of Night
I Don’t Know Anything About You Any More
Uncorrected Personality Traits
Queen of Eyes
Sometimes a Blonde
I Often Dream Of Trains
Victorian Squid
Up To Our Nex
I’m Falling
Olé! Tarantula

Encore (covers):
Terrapin – Syd Barrett
All Tomorrow’s Parties – Velvet Underground
Simple Twist of Fate – Bob Dylan
Soul Love – Bowie

 

Thoughts on Space Exploration (Long)

It has been a long time since I posted anything here, so why not jump back in with something so long that nobody will bother to read it?

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I got into a bit of a kerfuffle last night and today when I posted a little thing on Facebook about the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Basically, I said that the landing was an amazing achievement, but I am not currently a big proponent of manned space exploration. A friend objected, and in the exchange, my views on the subject have crystallized a bit.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, America was experiencing a transition composed of postwar economic prosperity, anti-Soviet paranoia, and nascent social transformation. (I am no historian, so I’m sure I have grossly oversimplified and mixed things up. But this is how I view it from here.) When the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, people were both terrified and disappointed. Terrified because of the threat that the Commies were going to drop atomic weapons on us from space; and disappointed because we were supposed to be the big winners from World War II – the saviors of the free world, the stalwart champions of industry and technological achievement. For the Soviets to accomplish a feat like getting a satellite into orbit before we did – why, that was inconceivable!

So when President John F. Kennedy promised us in 1961 that the United States of America would send a man to the moon by 1970, the nation was stirred. For the anti-Communists, here was a chance to put the Soviet Union back in its place. The U.S. was the dominant industrial and economic force in the world, and we could Do This Thing. Others, particularly in the younger generations, were engaged in the civil rights and other social change movements, and for a lot of them, the gee-whiz optimism of the promise – especially coming as it did from JFK – matched up with their hope for a transformed society. Kennedy’s vision was inspirational, and as tragic as his assassination was, I think the mythic status conferred on him as a result helped keep people behind that vision.

And of course, in the end, Kennedy’s vision was realized and NASA put the first human beings onto another world on July 20, 1969.

There is no question that the moon landing was an awesome accomplishment, and not just because we beat the Soviets and got a big boost to our sense of American exceptionalism. (In fact, I would say it was awesome despite that; I’m not a big fan of exceptionalism as a policy driver today.) The moon landing inspired a lot of technological develoment and the feat itself drove many young people into scientific and engineering fields, as had the effort to get there in the first place. It allowed NASA to develop the space shuttle program. All in all, the net benefits, in my opinion, more than justified the costs – which included, tragically, the deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launchpad fire.

Unfortunately, I do not think the same factors are in play today in considering manned space exploration. As a society and a nation, we are in a very different place. We don’t have a Soviet Union to race against – our biggest enemy is a stateless radical religious ideology that has no interest in development of new technology, and no interest in exploration and expansion into space. The the extent it has any interest in space-related technology, it is focused only on obtaining and using such technology as a means to inflict damage and death on its ideological opponents.

We are no longer experiencing the kind of economic advantage that we had 50 years ago. The U.S. is not the sole dominating force in industry and commerce. For reasons that can be, and are, endlessly debated (especially in an election year), we are suffering from an anti-prosperity that makes it very difficult to justify pie-in-the-sky idealistic projects. Our economy is fragile and our priorities are different from those half a century past. Recession, a decade of very expensive war, and spiraling debt have put our national focus much more on the question of what tangible benefits are obtainable from each and every expenditure.

Another factor, which seems counterintuitive but which I think is important, is that technological advancement has been so rapid and so incredible that we no longer have “holy shit!” reactions to innovation. A lot of people carry around in their pockets and purses a tiny plastic box that contains thousands of times more computing power than the machines that controlled the Apollo spacecraft, through which we have access to a global network that contains nearly all human knowledge to date and vast stores of entertainment, all available nearly instantaneously. I won’t go into a litany of all the amazing technology that we take for granted, but I think it’s clear that our expectations have been skewed. The Space Shuttle was launched 135 times. At first it was pretty breathtaking, but in time, it became almost as commonplace as a truck leaving a shipping dock. The public generally took real notice of the shuttles only in the case of the two fatal disasters – Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

All of which is a long way of saying that I don’t think the public spirit in America today is as likely to be inspired by the vision of humans stepping on Mars as it was decades ago about the moon. Not right now, anyway. (One has only to look at the public reaction to Newt Gingrich’s “moon colony” speech to get an idea of how different attitudes are, though it’s also fair to attribute some of that reaction to the public perception of Gingrich himself.)

On top of that, it seems to me that a great deal of the exploration and discovery we are most interested in at the moment can be accomplished by the sophisticated unmanned equipment NASA and others have been developing over the past several years. My friend argues that there are things a human can do that robot probes can’t do, and that is undoubtedly true. The question is whether those specific things are sufficiently important that they justify the expense required to get humans to Mars (or wherever). Not only do astronauts require extensive life support to get there, they require continued life support once on the surface, and they have to be able to come home. All of those things add a very large number to the bottom line costs, and at the moment, I don’t see that any added benefit the human presence might provide justifies that very large increment.

Make no mistake. I want to be able to send people to Mars and elsewhere. I personally would love to see it happen. But I don’t think it ought to – or can –  be a first priority right now, even in the narrow area of space exploration priorities.

NASA is starting to do a better job of promoting its mission, as evidenced by the very slick “Seven Minutes of Terror” video it released to describe the Curiosity landing scheduled for August 5-6. Geek culture is on the rise in many ways; the Kepler exoplanet survey has a lot of potential to inspire young people about space exploration; and there are fascinating stories almost every day about new technologies in a multitude of fields, many of which will undoubtedly contribute to future human exploration of other worlds. Contra that, we have a weak economy, a couple of wars still costing vast sums of money, a public zeitgeist that is complacent half the time and terrified half the time, and a cynical political class that is more interested in gaining and maintaining power than in developing and promoting a unifying national vision. We may reach a tipping point sometime in the next couple of decades, if everything doesn’t go completely to shit before then, and I sincerely hope we do. But without the kind of incentives that we had in 1961, we aren’t there now and we may not get there for a while.

Dinosaur Sez: “Don’t Give In To The Asteroid!”

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and a monthly contributor to The Providence Journal, among other publications. This essay is one of this year’s Delacorte Lectures at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The Delacorte Lectures, presented each week in the spring semester, examine aspects of magazine journalism by a leader in the field of magazine publishing.

Long before I took myself off Facebook, I doubted the so-called revolutionary potential of the Internet. In part my viewpoint was formed early on by the annoying smugness of the pre-crash dot.com “entrepreneurs,” who always seemed to be murmuring initial public offering nonsense at a table next to mine in tony restaurants.

I recall one such occasion in the year 2000 when Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper’s Magazine, and I were dining in indirectly lit luxury, somewhere near San Francisco on our promotion tour to celebrate the magazine’s 150th anniversary.

Lewis was born skeptical, but when he heard the three men at the next table discussing in hushed tones what sounded like easy money, he couldn’t help himself and he inquired about how we could get in on the ground floor. “It depends,” said one of them smoothly, “on what kind of platform you want to establish, how you want to present your content.” I said that I wanted to publish a magazine filled with sentences, not build a tree house, and the conversation came to an abrupt halt.

Click through for the whole thing. It is … fascinating, at least. And will make you look around to see whose lawn you should be getting off of.