The demise of the American cappuccino

When I was a post doc at BU in the nineties, I used to go to a cafe on Commonwealth Ave just down the street from my office on Cummington Street. I don’t remember the name of the place but I do remember getting a cappuccino that looked something like this:cappuccinoNow, I usually get something that looks like this:   dry cappuccino Instead of a light delicate layer of milk with a touch of foam floating on rich espresso, I get a lump of dry foam sitting on super acidic burnt quasi-espresso. How did this unfortunate circumstance occur? I’m not sure but I think it was because of Starbucks. Scaling up massively means you get what the average customer wants, or Starbucks thinks they want. This then sets a standard and other cafes have to follow suit because of consumer expectations. Also, making a real cappuccino takes training and a lot of practice and there is no way Starbucks could train enough baristas. Now, I’m not an anti-Starbucks person by any means. I think it is nice that there is always a fairly nice space with free wifi on every corner but I do miss getting a real cappuccino. I believe there is a real business opportunity out there for cafes to start offering better espresso drinks.

Unintended consequences

Here is a true story. A young man is trained to hit people as hard as possible and to react immediately to any provocation with unhindered aggression. He signs a 5 year contract for 35 million dollars to do this 16 times a year or more if he and his colleagues are very successful at doing it. One day he gets upset with his fiancée and strikes her in the head so hard that she is knocked unconscious in a public place. This creates a minor stir so the employer mandates that he must apologize and is prohibited from smashing into people for 2 of the 16 times he is scheduled to do so. The fiancée-now-spouse also refuses to press charges because she doesn’t want to jeopardize the 27 million over the next 3 years owed to the man. However, a video showing the incident is made public creating a huge uproar so the employer abruptly fires the man and condemns him since he now is no longer financially useful to the employer. The public now feels vindicated that such a despicable man is no longer employed and that domestic violence now is given the attention it deserves. However, the spouse is very unhappy because her comfortable lifestyle has just been pulled from right under her. Now, other spouses who live with violent but rich men will be even more silent about abuse because they fear losing their livelihoods too. If we really cared about victims of domestic violence, we would force the employer to set up a fund to ensure that spouses that come forward are compensated financially. We would also force them to support institutions that help the many more victims of domestic abuse who are not married to rich and famous people. This young man is probably an upstanding citizen most of the time. Now he is unemployed and potentially even angrier. He should not be thrown out onto the street but given a chance to redeem himself. The employers and the system who trained and groomed these young men need to look at themselves.

The morality of watching (American) football

The question in this week’s New York Times Ethicist column is whether it is wrong to watch football because of the inherent dangers to the players. The ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, says that it is ethical to watch football because the players made the decision to play freely with full knowledge of the risks. Although I think Klosterman has a valid point and I do not judge anyone who enjoys football, I have personally decided to forgo watching it. I simply could no longer stomach watching player after player going down with serious injuries each week. In Klosterman’s article, he goes on to say that even if football were the only livelihood the players had, we should still watch football so that they could have a livelihood. This is where I disagree. Aside from the fact that we shouldn’t have a society where the only chance to have a decent livelihood is through sports, football need not be that sport. If football did not exist, some other sport, including a modified safer football, would take its place. Soccer is the most popular sport in the rest of the world. Football exists in its current form because the fans support it. If that support moved to another sport, the players would move too.

Epic comeback

Well, I spoke too soon in my earlier post on the America’s Cup.  Oracle Team USA has since won 7 races in a row and now it is 8-8 in the best of 17 match (although they have already had 18 races). The final race to determine the winner is today. Check out the action here.  In the past, America’s Cup races had usually been best of 3 or best of 5 matches. In this new format, the races are much shorter, taking less than an hour rather than several, and they try to get in two a day if the weather permits. In the beginning New Zealand had the faster boat. They had already been racing for over a month in the challenger series and were just better than Oracle. However, the long format and some weather delays has given Oracle a chance to get up to speed and now they are definitely the faster boat. Yesterday, they flew by New Zealand on the upwind leg. The only chance New Zealand has to win today is if Oracle makes a mistake.

National Elk Refuge

Right outside of Jackson, Wyoming is the National Elk Refuge, which was established in 1912.  It is the wintering ground for a herd of ten thousand elk as well as eight hundred bison.  During winter, the elk come down from the mountains to the Jackson Hole valley where the snow is thinner so they can access grass more easily.  You can take a horse drawn sleigh right out to the herd with the Grand Tetons as the the backdrop. Here are some pictures.

Podcast update

Here’s whats on my iPod these days.  I definitely try to listen to the following three each week.  They are all about an hour so they fit into my drive home from work.

Quirks and Quarks:  Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s weekly radio science show.  I used to listen to it as a child.  The first host was former scientist and current environmentalist David Suzuki.  It is now hosted by Bob McDonald.

The Science Show:  This is Australia’s long running radio science show hosted by the inimitable Robyn Williams

Radio Lab:  Possibly the most innovative thing ever on radio.  If you’ve never listened to radio lab, your missing out on a fantastic experience.

I sometimes listen to these.  The philosophy shows are half an hour or shorter while Econtalk is often longer than an hour so they are not as convenient to listen to on my drive.

Philosopher’s Zone: A show that is probably only viable in Australia, which has a vibrant philosophical community.  Host Alan Saunders is also a food expert.

Philosophy Bites: These are usually quite short but informative

Econtalk: Salon-like conversations between George Mason economist Russ Roberts and a guest covering a wide range of topics in economics and beyond  Although Roberts is a self-professed believer in markets his show is fairly well-balanced with different viewpoints.

I used to listen to these shows more but find myself dialing them up less for some reason these days:

All in the mind:  I find this half hour radio show a little too melodramatic at times but it can be interesting

The Naked Scientists:  This is a very popular radio show/podcast out of Cambridge, England.  I find it a little too flip at times and the hosts sometimes make mistakes.

In addition to these regular podcasts, I also listen to university lectures, mostly in philosophy, available on iTunes U.