Technology & Culture Update 3/29/13

Extraterrestrials trying to contact the Mayans?

It’s Good Friday, peeps, so here’s some good reading for y’all!

Capitalizing on the astounding sales of the erotic smash hit, Fifty Shades of Grey, Vintage Books announced the forthcoming release of E. L. James’s The Fifty Shades of Grey: Inner Goddess (A Journal), which will no doubt bury the author and her publisher in fifty shades of green. In addition to titillating excerpts from the trilogy, the journal will include tips for aspiring writers. Seriously. I can think of several writers who are rolling over in their graves…

Publishers at the Digiday Publishing Summit muse about their biggest worries. No surprise: encroaching digital technologies and the shift toward mobile devices dominated the conversation.

In a particularly trenchant post, Seth Godin articulates the distinctive features that characterized the industrial age (obsession with scarcity) juxtaposing them with those that are organic to the “connection economy” (which prizes abundance). Go ahead, pick yourself!

The Scholarly Kitchen serves up a tasty review of Academic and Professional Publishing (Robert Campbell, Ed Pentz, and Ian Borthwick, eds.). This comprehensive tome offers essays touching on every aspect of the current academic publishing landscape — from the nuts and bolts of the biz to philosophical soul-searching about what the future holds (can you say “disruptive innovation”?). The reviewer offers a sobering bullet-point summary of the book’s highlights, the last of which is: “Digital skills (media, analytics, marketing) and leadership/management skills are needed to guide publishing through its next phase.” How ’bout “editorial skills”?

Google is fightin’ mad! The techno-leviathan insists that its trademarked moniker is not a verb! The company is determined to protect its brand and get the entire world to quit talking about “googling” something. Yeah, good luck wi’ dat. So listen up, y’all: cease and desist! Google knows where you live (and what your house looks like).

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog reports that MIT plans to release documents relating to its role in the Aaron Swartz case. “At MIT we believe in openness, and we are not afraid to examine our own actions,” university prez L. Rafael Reif solemnly pronounced (with a straight face). It should be noted that the documents in question will be redacted, you know, to protect the privacy of the guilty. Redacted? MIT, what don’t you understand about “open access”?

And here’s another timely read from the Scholarly Kitchen: “Open Access — Idealism and Realism Remain Difficult to Reconcile, Survey Says.” Surveys can be problematic, but the article does discuss some interesting aspects of the OA tug o’ war (like the many flavors of Creative Commons licenses).

Lord, how I wish I could convince aspiring authors that the skills involved in penning a provocative blog post, engaging long-form article, or masterful dissertation are not the same as those marshaled in the production of a book. Helen Hazen plumbs the depths of this innocent self-delusion in her essay, “Endless Rewriting,” in the current online issue of The American Scholar. The most important point in the article is her recollection of her editor’s declaration that “without clear and accurate language we cannot communicate effectively.” This is, of course, the crux of the matter — and the editor’s credo. So while I am thrilled by the prospect of the literary liberation offered by the self-publishing craze, I am also afraid of writers who don’t think they need an editor. Very afraid…

Has civility gone completely out of fashion? What are the new rules of (digital) etiquette? Do we just take ourselves too damn seriously? PLEASE DON’T TEXT WHILE I’M TALKING TO YOU! The Smithsonian considers how technology is affecting — and altering — how we relate to and interact with one another. Beware, one researcher suggests that “if you don’t practice connecting face to face [or is that f2f?] with others, you can start to lose your biological capacity to do so.”

And finally, for the ultimate in a techno-cultural mashup, check out the QR codes embedded in the pavers in Rio de Janeiro (photo above). When I first saw this, I thought it was proof that the ancient Romans invented smart phones. Turns out this is a clever (and subtle) way to provide touristas with scads of information about historical/cultural attractions (uh-huh), restaurants, lodgings, etc. You just take a photo with your smart phone and it zooms you straight to a helpful website. What’ll they think of next?

Have a fantastic weekend!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Lance Armstrong, Pt. II: The Song Remains the Same

No CyclingIn his tell-all confessional with Oprah, Lance Armstrong came up short. Like a good poker player, he held back more than he revealed, and he folded before he cashed out.

His responses were measured (to the point of being curt), and he came off as being impassive rather than contrite. His body language spoke volumes, his face an immobile mask for most of the interview. Claiming to have been caught up in the endemic doping culture of pro cycling, Armstrong said he was simply carried along on the tide with so many others. He concluded matter-of-factly, it was just “part of the job.”

Remarkably, when his inquisitor asked whether his dope-fueled TdF wins felt wrong, the defrocked champion looked her in the eye and with a straight face replied, “No. [pause] Scary.” Oprah tried again, “It did not even feel wrong?” Lance (stony faced), “No. [pause] Even scarier.” Oprah pressed on: “Did you feel bad about it?” Again, that unnerving vacuous stare, “No. [pause] The scariest.” That’s three swings and three misses, in case you’re keeping score. No remorse. One can’t help but feel that this man is a sociopath.

“Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?” And as if it explained everything, Lance offered this convoluted defense: “At the time, no. I kept hearing … I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of ‘cheat’ [he had to look it up? Now that’s scary!], and the definition … is ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have.’ I didn’t view it that way; I viewed it as a level playing field.” The man is in denial. For the record, Merriam-Webster defines the intransitive verb ‘to cheat’ as, 1a: to practice fraud or trickery; 1b: to violate rules dishonestly. Parse it however you like, Lance, you were cheating. This is hardly the tack you’d expect someone to take when he’s seeking redemption and a second chance.

Responding to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart’s indictment that the Armstrong-led doping regime was “the most sophisticated, professional, and successful doping program sport has ever seen,” Lance riposted flippantly, “to say that [U.S. Postal’s] program was bigger than the East German doping program in the ’70s and ’80s? That’s not true.” Well, I suppose that’s some consolation.

Armstrong opined that it is not humanly possible for anyone—let alone a cancer survivor—to win seven Tours in a row without having made a Faustian bargain, so he must surely have known he’d get busted sooner or later. But again the dispassionate testimony: “You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times. You have a happy marriage, you have children. I mean, it’s just this mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.” He seemed utterly amazed that his house of cards came tumbling down. Armstrong admitted to being a ruthless, arrogant bully, and described himself as “a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and to control every outcome.”

With his chronic history as a serial liar, it’s difficult to determine how much of this performance was authentic and how much was pure bravado; perhaps Armstrong still believes he’s invincible, in control. One thing’s certain: he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. By his own admission, Lance has an ingrained habit of carefully sculpting the Lance Armstrong Story, and there is no doubt that he had also been thoroughly coached by an extensive team of handlers, lawyers, and a “crisis manager”—a dozen of whom accompanied him to the interview. Oprah got it. In the days between the taping and airing of the show, she tweeted simply, “He came READY!”

In fact, not unlike Michael Jackson, a property as valuable as Lance Armstrong would have been coddled and protected by managers, handlers, PR flacks, and groupies throughout his life. The man lived in a carefully constructed fantasy world; his grasp on reality must have been tenuous. He ultimately came to believe his own hype, and as anyone in the entertainment industry will tell you, that is usually a terminal affliction.

When all is said and done, Lance Armstrong isn’t smart enough to be an arch-criminal. He’s a professional athlete, a man who spends most of his waking hours training intensely on the bike or the trainer or in the gym. Perhaps his legendary business acumen is overblown—Warren Buffett or Bill Gates he is not. He may well have been conditioned over time to rely on the guidance of his handlers, constantly reinforced by the adulation of his entourage and admirers (and his burgeoning bank account).

If such is the case, he may be forgiven some of his indiscretions—he was just doing what so many people had encouraged him to do ever since he was an ambitious 16-year-old triathlete competing at the national level. Expectations were always sky-high, and Lance never failed to deliver. The pressure of being in that position must be enormous. We were all more than willing to be awed by his seemingly superhuman feats (I know I was), and we were touched and motivated by his comeback from cancer, and the good works done by the Livestrong Foundation. Now we’re taking turns kicking him while he’s down. Americans adore their celebrities, but they’re a fickle lot.

Though he never directly addressed the question (which was asked repeatedly) of “why now?” Lance turned the query on its head and shot back, “If you’re asking me, do I want to compete again, the answer is ‘hell yes!’ I’m a competitor.” Sounding overly dramatic, he noted how many of his racing cohort—the riders whose sworn testimony about their own drug use led to Armstrong’s downfall—only received six-month suspensions, while he has been given a “life sentence” (his phrase). The Lance doesn’t think that’s fair. Hindsight is 20/20, but now he realizes he should have taken the same deal and cooperated with USADA. Instead, he stood his ground and turned up the volume on his belligerent denials, blinded by his monumental ego. It is more than likely that the people closest to him egged him on as well.

"Who are those guys?"

“Who are those guys?”

The real answer to “why now?” is painfully obvious: he didn’t confess to clear his conscience, Lance set up the interview with Oprah because the walls (and the authorities) were closing in on him, and he was out of options. It was a calculated move on his part; he wasn’t so much stepping up as he was bailing out. It reminds me of a scene (several, in fact) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which the pair of outlaws can’t seem to shake the posse that’s doggin’ their trail. A chagrinned Cassidy exclaims incredulously, “Who are those guys?”

Rather than spilling his guts to the appropriate authorities under oath and letting the chips fall where they may, Armstrong took the celebrity’s route and sought absolution from the High Priestess of Media. Lance’s “confession” was more about damage control than repairing all the damage he himself wrought, and it would appear that he had best not take off the hair shirt just yet—his penance has only just begun.

So I was wrong in postulating that Lance wouldn’t confess to doping, but I was right in likening his performance to the opening of Al Capone’s secret vault. Both were empty and disappointing.

Still, this was just the first stage in the Tour de Lance; many challenges  lay ahead. In addition to his legal woes, Armstrong has forsaken the public trust and pundits are lining up to crucify him. In all fairness, it’s very difficult to judge without having walked a mile in his shoes. And it is with this thought in mind that I encourage you to read Diana Nyad’s op-ed on the interview. It’s the most balanced and thoughtful offering I’ve seen to date, and this from a person who understands the world of the professional athlete—and the sting of defeat—better than most.

Can Lance Armstrong pull off yet another comeback? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Pete Rose, one of the few people on the planet who actually has a good grasp of Lance’s predicament, offered his consolation, adding, “I waited too long. … I hope it’s not too late for him.”

Oh, and did I mention the movie deal? Hollywood loves a story of redemption—or a fallen angel…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike

lance not happyThe unattributed leak hinting that Lance Armstrong is planning to admit to his doping escapades in an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey on January 21 is a high-concept stunt. Both of these celebs (who are pals, by the way—check out this shared guacamole recipe) have suffered declining ratings, so what’s better for burnishing your star than a good old-fashioned exposé?

Let the hype begin! To get the ball rolling, you arrange for Lance to do lunch with USADA officials—no press release (that would just be tacky), but the media will somehow “find out” about it and draw the obvious conclusion: a strategically timed 60 Minutes Sports segment suggested that the principals were exploring a possible “pathway to redemption.” More likely, they were discussing the relative merits of the seared sockeye.

Then you’ll leak the non-story linking this tête-à-tête and Lance’s determination to come clean with Oprah to some tabloid (ahem, USA Today) through an anonymous source (“a person with knowledge of the situation”). Mainstream and social media will be all over it like white on rice; otherwise respectable news reporters will gladly become your unpaid PR flacks. Indeed, journalists will be afraid not to run with the dubious (though titillating) story, just in case it turns out to be true; they can’t bear the thought of being scooped. They take the bait, great. Now let Lance set the hook; when queried by the AP, Armstrong coyly texts, “I told her [Oprah] to go wherever she wants and I’ll answer the questions directly, honestly, candidly. That’s all I can say.” In due course, the story that isn’t gets plastered all over the media. Well played, Team Armstrong.

dewey-defeats-trumanThe saga has morphed from specious rumor to done deal: “Lance to Admit Doping in Oprah Interview.” That was NPR’s lede today; it should certainly guarantee a huge viewership. The AP, the New York Times, NPR and all the rest should be ashamed of themselves for being duped into rushing into reporting news before it happens.

Tension builds: will he or won’t he? Pundits posit. Nate Silver runs the numbers. Wagers are placed.

It’s not Lance’s moral turpitude that concerns me—his mortal soul is his business. And as faithful groupies and defenders stridently insist, Lance wasn’t the only cyclist on the Tour who was juicin’, so cut the poor boyo some slack, woncha? That’s true, of course, but many of his colleagues have come forward and admitted their malfeasance before God and country, opting to be part of the solution while Lance seems determined to be the poster child for the problem. Few other professional cyclists abused the trust of so many along the road to fame and fortune. And few are worth $100 million in the wake of so much cheating, so much deceit. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

I had a hunch that one way or another Armstrong would find a way to get our attention; he needs the limelight like you and I need oxygen. Lance is an opportunist—a very hardworking one, I’ll grant you—but an opportunist, all the same. He’s a classic power and control junkie; Lance craves the adulation even more than the money. He wasn’t kidding when he sagely pronounced, “It’s not about the bike.” Nope. It’s all about the Lance.

Personally, I won’t be watching—I don’t own a TV. That’s OK, he’ll tweet about it after the fact (gotta wring every ounce out of it). As a dedicated roadie and previous Armstrong fan, I am interested to know if Lance has the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing, even if he does it for the all the wrong reasons (like copping a plea to avoid prosecution and shorten his cycling suspension). Spoiler: He doesn’t and he won’t.

On the off chance that I’m wrong and Oprah brings in the Big Guns (Dr. Phil, a “mystery guest,” and some very cute, but disappointed children) to coerce Lance to ’fess up in the best prime-time confessional form, there will be tears. Like all good con men, Lance is a master manipulator; his timing is exquisite and he knows just which buttons to push: his dysfunctional childhood, his failed marriage, his courageous battle with cancer. Despite it all, he beat the odds and rode to glory—a true champion! He is Lance Armstrong, All-American Boy, and he needs your forgiveness to secure his redemption.

Scarface: muggin’ for the camera.

I’m thinkin’ maybe his people should have partnered with Geraldo Rivera, the prince of smarm-o-vision for this tell-all. Geraldo would have cranked up the seismic sensationalism of the event to eleven (attracting more viewers, which in turn translates into more dollars—a language Armstrong speaks fluently). But then there’s always the possibility that like Al Capone’s vault, Lance’s confession will prove to be nothing more than an empty hole…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

(Frowning Lance: Reuters)

 

Lawyers, Guns & Money…

lawyers, guns & moneyI have a confession to make: I like guns. I do. As a Special Forces veteran and someone who has paid the rent by repossessing cars in Watts-Willowbrook-Compton-Inglewood (the ’hood affectionately known within the craft as “Inglewatts”), as a former editor of and freelance contributor to various and sundry military hardware journals (both consumer and defense industry), as a historical interpreter of many periods, and as a qualified historian, I am no stranger to firearms (from matchlocks to submachine guns) or the concept of a “well-regulated militia.”

I have always been a responsible firearms owner (though I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the NRA), and while I have been trained to kill with a variety of “weapons” (any object—including your hands—becomes a “weapon” only when employed with intent to do bodily harm), I have deep misgivings about the escalating gun-related violence in our society. I say again: I am not “anti-gun”—far from it; however, I am “anti-violence,” and I have a real problem with sociopaths being armed to the teeth.

I’m really tired of hearing the old saw, “assault weapons only have one purpose—to kill people.” As a civilian, I’ve owned a good many of these semiautomatic firearms, and all I’ve ever “killed” with ’em was paper targets and the odd tin can. Target shooting and plinking are perfectly legitimate hobbies, so get over it. I have no desire to hunt; it just doesn’t seem sporting to shoot at living things that can’t shoot back.

Please understand that assault rifles (note that I did not say “weapons”) are not the source of our current national hand-wringing malaise. They’re just semiautomatic rifles that have unique cosmetic features (like pistol grips and synthetic stocks).

Remington Nylon 66

My first rifle was a Remington Nylon 66—it was a .22 caliber rimfire semiautomatic; it had a synthetic stock, and it was most definitely not an assault rifle!

Testosterone patch

However, the shift to the modern suburban lifestyle with its attendant decrease in physical activity and increase in desk-bound professionals with Buddha-bellies and glazed eyes has offered manufacturers a golden marketing opportunity, and in fine capitalistic style they’ve seized on it with a vengeance.

Bushmaster, the makers of the weapon used in the Newtown massacre, manufacture and sell modified AR-15 rifles under evocative pseudo-martial nomenclature like “Adaptive Combat Rifle (ACR)” and “Magpul Original Equipment (MOE)” and the “M4-A2 Trpe Patrolman’s Carbine.” And if that’s not enough to get the ol’ testosterone a-pumpin’, the flacks at Bushmaster confidently assert that after your purchase of one of these Special Ops wannabe firearms, you can “consider your Man Card reissued.”

I don’t know about you, but that really puts my mind at ease. I’ve been meaning to get my Man Card renewed…

Prove it!Now, this isn’t some metaphorical reference to your male plumbing; rather, Bushmaster will issue you a real live Man Card that “confirms that you are a man’s man”—you know, just in case you weren’t quite sure…

Not sophomoric enough for you? Then try this one on for size: You can actually snitch on weenies who have committed acts that warrant rescinding their Man Card. So nanner-Man Card revoked!nanner. (You can view this stupid ad campaign here.) You just fill out a form identifying the infraction and the wimp in question, labeling the perp as a “Cry Baby,” “Cupcake,” “Short Leash,” “Coward,” or the ever-popular catchall “Unmanly” and shazzam! Man Card revoked! Fortunately, reclaiming your dick—er, Man Card—only requires that you go out and buy yourself a heapin’ hunk o’ throbbin’ camo-clad Bushmaster.

Apparently even Bushmaster was ashamed of this silly Freudian stunt in light of its association with the ill-timed Newtown slaughter of schoolchildren, so it pulled down the Man Card website pronto. Guess I’m gonna have to find some other way to call them out as a “Coward” and have their Man Card revoked.

‘Little Alex’ would be proud

In truth, the (most recent) mass shooting is only a symptom of a much more deeply rooted problem in our society: America is suffering from an addiction. We deny all the evidence, we dance around it, and all the while it is literally killing us. We are addicted to violence.

commando wannabe

‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ game

We ritualize it, we celebrate it, we worship it. Our entire culture—our favorite sports, music, TV programs and movies, video games, politics, foreign policy, even our religion—encourages and condones violence. We make war on oppressive regimes, we make war on poverty, we make war on drugs, we make war on cancer, we make war on terror (not terrorism, mind you). We just plain like to make war.

So how’s that workin’ out for us? How many of these righteous wars have we won? Never mind; it’s a rhetorical question…

We can’t fix this insidious epidemic of violence by banning assault rifles (as President Obama would have us do) any more than we can by placing armed law enforcement personnel and military guards in every school and public venue across the land (as Wayne LaPierre, vice-president of the NRA suggests). Prohibition—as we certainly should have learned—doesn’t work; it only creates a black market for the naughty stuff while driving it underground. And turning the country into a police state would be a less than desirable outcome (though it would create jobs, which should make the conservative legislators happy).

We’ll never entirely rid ourselves of guns, nor have enough psychiatrists or psychologists to identify and intervene with all of the mentally disturbed students (or returning combat veterans, for that matter). We haven’t got the will and the Teapublicans (or their patron saint, Grover “Who elected that asshole?” Norquist) wouldn’t allow us to spend the money.

These are knee-jerk extremist positions, and as Jim Wright points out in his Stonekettle Station blog, “Extremism by definition is a position adopted by people who know they are wrong, but refuse to concede, refuse to compromise, refuse to reason, refuse to admit that they have a problem.”

“Refuse to admit that they have a problem.” That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. We can point fingers back and forth ’til we’re blue in the face, but nothing will change until we admit we have a problem. That’s the first step in treating any addiction.

Also, when we wanted to curtail smoking, we took action to alter the public perception that smoking is “cool” or “sexy.” And that’s been a huge success. Yes, there are still some boneheads who are dumb enough to voluntarily commit incremental suicide, but they are a dying breed (pun intended).

Suggestion for next ad campaign.

Suggestion for next ad campaign.

Now we need to replace the cultural imperative to compensate for our sedentary lifestyles by embracing some macho fantasy with a new message: It is lame to be a closet commando.

On the societal level, addressing our national fixation on employing violence to make our point will take a good deal more effort (and that’s above my pay grade).

Let’s get real

And then there’s that pesky Second Amendment thang. It was included in the Constitution to ensure that Americans could defend themselves against a tyrannical or despotic government (not foreign invaders—that’s the army’s job). The framers had the benefit of a little Real World experience in their rear-view mirror.

It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem: even as I write this, Congress is considering legislation that would suspend the writ of habeas corpus, thus denying US citizens their right to due process and enabling the government to indiscriminately imprison citizens without charging them with a crime. We have good reason to be circumspect.

We can debate the semantics of prose penned in the 18th century (when “militia” meant every able-bodied adult male and a musket was an “assault rifle”), but the intent is clear—as my friend John Wickett opined, the Second Amendment was not drafted “with tweed-clad quail hunters (shotgun broken over a dapper forearm) in mind.” In the 21st century this poses a conundrum, I’ll grant you.

There are perfectly logical and rational arguments to be made on both sides of this debate. Perhaps we need tighter restrictions on certain types of firearms (and their attendant accessories—like high-capacity magazines and grenade launchers); surely we should give some consideration to beefing up our mental health programs; surely we can agree to tone down the ultra-violence that has become nigh-ubiquitous in the media (commercial and social) and the entertainment industry. I’m thinkin’ the answer is ‘E – all of the above.’

As President Obama indicated, it is a complex issue, but I firmly believe there are enough intelligent, reasonable people in the country to have an open and honest dialog about how we should proceed. It’s not unlike the debt crisis negotiation; which is to say, once you get past the emotion-charged rhetoric, all sides have to give a little to achieve a workable compromise.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

The Science of Coffee, Part Two

London coffeehouse, ca 1660 – idea incubator

A major cultural shift took root in the city of Oxford, England in 1650. It manifested itself in a shop called The Angel. This establishment was a coffeehouse, and Oxford was a hotbed of intellectual activity. It was a match made in heaven. The fruit of the bean was a vestige of eight centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula (the last Moslem stronghold, Granada, fell to the Christians in 1492—a very good year for Ferdi and Bella).

You see, up to that time, Britons—who, unlike the Mohammedans, did not suffer from a religious ban on alcohol—guzzled booze like it was water. It wasn’t so much that they were lushes; rather, it was because the water wasn’t fit to drink. This did not prove conducive to creative thought and civil social intercourse. Fortunately, The Angel intervened and coffeehouse culture soon flourished in raucous London as well. And when caffeinated beverages (tea and cocoa were also popular) began to replace alcohol as the social lubricant of choice, a strange thing happened: innovation flowered exponentially.

Coffeehouses became the locus of philosophical banter, political discourse, and gossip. Some historians posit that supplanting a depressant with a stimulant and serving it up in a congenial atmosphere was a prime mover in the rise of the intellectually fertile period known as The Age of Enlightenment.

My point being that coffee is a good thing.

Gaggia Classic

If your taste buds yearn for that concentrated essence of liquid bliss known as espresso (and as your editor, I urge you to note that there is no ‘x’ in espresso), you should consider investing in a midrange semiautomatic machine with a proven track record, such as the Gaggia Classic. It lists for $599, but it’s currently available for under $400 shipped (you can snag a refurb for $299 shipped). Of course at this time of year, you may find an even better deal by doing due diligence.

As the moniker implies, the Classic has been around for a good many years; it’s built like a tank and highly reliable. Spare parts are readily available, and minor repairs or upgrades are well within the purview of anyone with a modicum of mechanical skill. And this is important: there is a ton of helpful data online about the care and feeding of the Classic, and a vibrant community of users who are more than willing to help if you have a problem (the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group is my favorite).

A stock Classic can pull a very respectable shot if properly adjusted (assuming fresh beans of an appropriate grind and proper barista technique). You can improve its performance considerably by adding a proportional integral derivative feedback device (PID). Fear not, this is just a diminutive (about the size of a computer mouse) electronic unit that insures a constant, proper temperature throughout the shot cycle. And if you’re going to make drinks requiring steamed milk (like cappuccino), you should also replace the stock steam wand with this one. You can perform both of these mods for under $200. There are also folks who upgrade Classics with all these features for resale in the $500-550 range (hint: it’s a good idea to join the Users Group, as they often pop up there…).

Cunill Tranquilo

Actually, it’s the grinder that is of paramount importance. Or as the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group moderator Tex Harmon quips, “The espresso machine is an accessory to the grinder, not the other way around.”

I don’t care how nice your espresso machine is, if you’re not feeding it uniformly ground beans of the correct granulation (and this requires a bit of fine-tuning), it will not be capable of producing exquisite shots. So plan on buying a quality consumer-level burr grinder or picking up a clean used commercial behemoth on the ’bay or Craigslist. In any case, you can count on laying out somewhere around $300-$500 for an espresso-worthy grinder. If you paid less than that for a new grinder, don’t expect good results. Trust me on this.

Now, if you really want to go all-out, you can step up to a prosumer-class machine, such as the Expobar Office Pulser (+/- $1,100) or the Quick Mill Andreja Premium (+/- $1,700). Any machine in this class, including the Gaggia Classic, is capable of producing espresso that surpasses the best you’ll ever get from an untrained barista using automated equipment of dubious cleanliness in a chain espresso bar.

To summarize: If you land a good deal on a new Gaggia Classic, tweak it a bit, and pair it with an espresso-worthy grinder, you can be in business for around a grand. If you go hawg-wild and pick up a nice prosumer setup, you’ll probably up the ante by another grand or so. The long and short of it is that you can score a truly kick-ass espresso setup for under $1,000. Now that may sound like a lot, but when you begin to add up what you’re paying for sub-par shots down at the local, you’ll find that you’ll recoup this investment in short order.

This covers (albeit briefly) the semiautomatic class of espresso machines. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz.

The Not-So-Superautomatics

If you really don’t have a very sophisticated palate—which is to say, you are perfectly satisfied with the frou-frou concoctions they serve up at *$—and you covet trendy labor-saving kitchen appliances, you are the ideal candidate for a superautomatic espresso machine. Wired magazine calls this class of whiz-bang gadgets “amazing pieces of engineering” because they do everything for you at the touch of a button—from bean to cup. Kinda Jetsonesque. They also produce mediocre to awful espresso (if you are concerned about such things).

Saeco Xelsis Digital ID

The Saeco Xelsis Digital ID is the latest entry in this crowded field of hip department store bling. But it may qualify for a new category all its own: the hyper-superautomatic—in fact, the promo lit calls it a “cutting edge technological marvel.” That’s because the $4,000 Xelsis D-ID trumps its space-age brethren by mating its built-in grinder with a detachable milk reservoir and a self-cleaning cycle; further, it sports a dazzling touchscreen digital interface (ooh!) that stores pre-set profiles for up to six unique users, and initiates its operation by being prompted with the latest in biometric technology. Yes, you heard right—it has an integrated device that reads your fingerprint so the machine will dispense exactly the right beverage, pre-approved and personalized for your discriminating taste.

Of course, you’ll also need the optional decoder ring (I made that up). Word on the street has it that the next-gen model will require the user to be microchipped (I made that up, too). As the scribe who produced the amazingly shallow Wired fluff piece admitted, “There are a lot more features that I don’t have the technical ability to explain well.” That one I didn’t make up. But in all fairness, the dude’s blog (Geekdad) is tabbed under “toys and technology.” You do the math.

So just how good is the espresso produced by this Rube Goldberg contraption? I’m glad you asked. I tried to find a legitimate review of this machine by a respectable coffee forum or blog, but failed. Hmmmm… All Google coughed up was a list of tech-toy blogs and news aggregators that obligingly regurgitated the press release verbatim (or a slight paraphrase thereof).

A few early adopters posted their initial experiences on amazon.com noting difficulties in programming the thing, a problem with the beverages being too cold, and opining that the reservoirs for water, milk, and used coffee grounds are too small, thereby requiring more fiddling than they expected to have to do with a high-zoot set-and-forget device.

One online purveyor of espresso equipage posted an amateurish youtube video that painfully exposes the limitations of the machine. I assume this was not their intent. In a real face-palm moment, the demo hostess couldn’t even get the machine to recognize her fingerprint. A well-respected Saeco distributor and fan of superautomics actually counsels against buying this product, stating unequivocally: “Expensive model. Not worth its looks or the Bells & whistles used to promote it.”

Why do you s’pose the rest of the world thinks Americans have too much stuff? Just talking about this makes me feel a little embarrassed. Now if the Xelsis (don’t you just hate the cutesy neologisms that marketeers dream up for product names?) doubled as a Transmogrifier, I’d be sold. But of course with a little imagination you can whip up a Transmogrifier out of any old cardboard box (which is sort of the point).

My advice? Espresso machines don’t multitask any better than humans; beware of any product that attempts to be all things to all men (or women, as the case may be), as they often wind up being nothing at all…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

The Science of Coffee, Part One

I like coffee. No, that’s far too tame. I love coffee. That is, I love good coffee. There’s a fair amount of science (and a pinch of alchemy) involved in creating the perfect mug o’ mud—or if you’re an espresso aficionado like me, the proverbial “God shot.” And with the current flowering of technological gadgetry, it’s no surprise the engineers and geeks have turned their collective genius to the humble coffeemaker—and trotted out their pricey offerings just in time for Christmas.

Before I go any further, I would like to categorically state that you can produce very respectable joe with a simple press pot (aka: French press, cafetière) or AeroPress, or if you like your coffee on the stronger side, a moka pot. Any of these can be acquired for a modest investment of around thirty-five simoleons. You will also need to score some high-quality fresh beans and an adequate burr grinder (manual mills can be had for under $100). Yes, there is a bit of technique involved (that’s where the alchemy comes in), but that’s half the fun! When all’s said and done, it’s “good” coffee if you like it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Taste is a subjective thing; making good coffee is as much art as science.


Blossom One Limited

Perhaps you find the above-mentioned appliances to be a bit pedestrian for your artistic sensibilities. You’re after something a smidge more precise, a bit sexier, a little more outré—what’s the word I’m looking for… oh yes, snobby. The Blossom One Limited is just the ticket; it’s got snob appeal by the bucket-load! A minimalist, utilitarian aesthetic belies its technological underpinnings, and this handcrafted work of functional art will lighten your wallet by—are you sitting down?—$11,111 (one has to wonder why they bothered with those last three digits—must have something to do with “artful design”).

Based on the press kit, we should be suitably awed by the bios of the techno-triumvirate that cooked up this percolator-on-steroids: Jeremy Kuempel (Head Honcho) is a mechanical engineering type from MIT who worked on the Apple iPad team, and at Tesla, where he designed the 17-inch touchscreen for the Model S; Matt Walliser has the NASA Ames Research Center on his CV as a former employer; and Joey Roth is the owner of the Joey Roth Design Studio (snappy title, eh?)—he apparently conceived a really cool teapot. Not seein’ any barista background here…

Gaggia Gilda
(orphanesspresso.com)

Rather than being satisfied to improve on the current “Best of Show” in coffeemaker technology, the boys claim to have been inspired by “sports cars, premium furniture, and the Bauhaus movement.”

Though it’s not an espresso machine, the Blossom One Ltd. does incorporate technologies that are commonplace in the high-end “prosumer” espresso market, and that makes perfect sense—plain ol’ coffeemakers have lagged far behind the state of the art in espressoland, so why not marry the two? In fact, Blossom’s basic approach to the process seems to be a variation on the lever-actuated espresso machine originally patented by Achille Gaggia in 1938 (which later appeared in a more compact iteration called the “Gilda,” the first espresso machine designed for consumers—you can read a fantastic profile here).

Hark! Mr. Kuempel declared, “The world is ready for truly great-tasting coffee.” The Blossom marketing team extrapolates on this profundity: “Designed to combine the best parts of immersion brewing with the ease of a standard coffeemaker, the revolutionary Blossom One Limited makes the perfect cup of coffee every time by allowing precise control of every aspect of the brewing process.” The exalted testimonial continues unabashedly, “To achieve this, our Blossom One Limited machine employs a novel brewing process that perfectly controls important brewing variables independently of environmental influences, empowering baristas with the right tools to make truly great-tasting coffee.”

Perhaps it’s the editor in me, but I’m really leery of products pitched with such hyperbolic prose as “revolutionary,” “perfect,” “every time,” “precise,” “every aspect,” “novel,” “perfectly,” and “empowering”—all in the same breath.

In addition to computer-controlled operational variables via a proportional integral derivative feedback control loop (PID)—which is to say, maintaining the ideal constant temperature—Blossom One also boasts an onboard WiFi camera(!) that can scan QR codes allowing “users to connect directly to a roaster’s preparation recommendations making it easy to share complex coffee brewing recipes direct from the coffee roaster to the final customer.”

As we went to press, no roasters were known to be providing such key data about their beans via QR codes, but maybe the appearance of 10 Blossom One machines (the entire inaugural production run) will provide the impetus to initiate the revolution. In the meantime, at least you can take pictures of yourself making some awesome coffee and post them on Pinterest. (Update: Apparently, the camera is a dedicated unit, it only feeds data to the Blossom—there is no USB port or other means of uploading images to another device, so strike that comment about taking pictures of yourself making really expensive coffee.)

Your $11,111 coffeemaker can be clad in the exotic wood trim of your choice (premium furniture, remember?), but perhaps most importantly—and folks, this is truly the pièce de résistance—every unit comes with an official signed build placard, and will be hand-delivered by “the Blossom team” (I trust they’re really attractive and very appreciative).

Currently in its second prototype incarnation, the Blossom One Ltd. is slated for initial delivery in a few months, so you’d better get your order in quick.

Aside from bragging rights, stupid-expensive digital coffeemakers have one thing in common: the dumbing down of the process. They appeal to the convenience factor that is so prized by the self-important. Hey man, time is money! Hence, “the premium Blossom One Limited machine requires little instruction to operate, enabling brewers of all experience levels to create the absolute best cup of coffee for the most discerning coffee aficionados.” Even a minimum-wage, teenaged Starbucks barista can do it!

So is it just me, or is it patently absurd to demo this highest of the high-end coffeemakers to someone who admits he is “not as much of a ‘coffee person’ as many of my caffeine-addled colleagues and friends”? I guess he drew the short straw. Well, in an attempt to garner some good press, the fellas who are trying to gin-up enthusiasm (and seed money) for this handcrafted, limited edition product humped it over to the Huffington Post offices and did just that.

You don’t have to be able to identify the fruity notes to appreciate a really outstanding brew, but having such a philistine review this chunk of high-tech wizardry would be like having—well him—review a fine wine (“I’m the kind of guy who will gladly drink wine out of a cardboard box.” Yes, this is a quote from the same review.).

What’s the point? Why should a reader care what this rube thinks of this $11,111 wunderkind? After all, the reviewer (who I suspect would prefer to remain nameless) concludes, “I will not be one of the initial buyers.” Still, I’m sure the mission was accomplished: generate enough buzz to actually convince someone who “can afford elevators for your cars” (again, same reviewer) to lay down some serious jack to bankroll this harebrained scheme. Of course, the only person who comes to mind who meets that particular qualification is morally averse to drinking coffee. Quite the conundrum. Then again, he’s an ace vulture capitalist, so who knows?

One has to wonder why they’re showing this thing to people who are totally unfamiliar with the boutique home or professional barista scene. No matter. I’m sure it’ll be a hit in the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog—right alongside that nifty $190,000 flying hovercraft…

Good thing you get to choose the exotic wood trim, for as the Blossom One website sagely concludes, “Simply having great technology isn’t enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.