Burr grinders, good coffee, and magical thinking

I’m not a huge fan of magical thinking, received wisdom, dogma, etc, etc. Sure, there’s going to be some value in received wisdom and we should have a bit of a think before tossing it out the window. But in general, unquestioning adoption of anything is a bad idea.

One place this kind of quasi-religious thinking shows up a lot is in cooking. Mostly, I think, because for a long time we knew that something did something but we didn’t know why. So people built up narratives about why because apparently we can’t say that seared steak tastes better without saying searing “seals in the juices” or whatever.

The worst of the worst, though, are a subset of cooking people, the coffee snobs. These people have turned a drug into a fetishistic individual or communal act. They know that your “average” coffee drinking prefers weak, milky coffee (maybe even with, gasp, sugar). These are the benighted, the heathens, who must (but frustratingly often can’t) be evangelized into the sacred cult of the good cup of coffee, whose sacraments are the fresh-ground bean and the burr grinder, the French press and the espresso machine.

Understandably, there isn’t much scientific data on whether or not any of this stuff really matters. Take burr grinders. There are two types of coffee grinders (leaving aside pre-ground coffee, that-which-must-not-be-named, the anathema, the Great Satan): Blade and burr. Blade grinders are essentially blenders. They’re what you use for spices. They whirl about and take a bunch of whacks at the beans until they’ve beaten them into submission. Burr grinders on the other hand gently caress the beans until they fall apart on their own. Or something.

Now as with most magical cook-think, the reasons not to use a blade grinder are many and change depending on who you ask. But there’s a general consensus that blade grinders produce a more uneven grind, tend to heat up the beans, and can’t make decent espresso grind. All these things are easily testable. But somehow no one has. Not really. And no one has tested whether or not an uneven grind makes a worse cup of coffee. Its seems like it should… but there are lots of things that seem like they should but aren’t. No one has tested whether a slight temperature increase makes a worse cup of coffee.

By the way, I’ve personally tested this, and I can’t tell the difference between burr and blade. I’ve been given lots of reasons for this (my eyes aren’t good, my equipment isn’t good, I’m too skilled a blade grinding, etc), but I see what I see. Lots of variability in grain size

And you can’t test this! You see the coffee nerds have constructed a completely test-proof ivory (but coffee-stained) tower where once we start a scientific approach they can say “oh but taste tests aren’t any good!” Why? Because the average people who do taste tests just don’t get it. The priests of the coffee cult get it, but some guy off the street isn’t good data. We’re not making coffee for them after all. The real reason is, of course, that no priest of the coffee cult wants to have their actual taste buds actually tested. They know what’s happened to the wine community with that.

I think at the end of the day, once there’s some science done here, we’ll find the same thing that we found out about wine. Everyone can tell the difference between terrible wine and decent wine. Very few people can tell the difference between decent wine and good wine. And almost no one can tell the difference between good wine and really, really good wine. I could be wrong. Maybe a lot of coffee snobs really can distinguish good coffee from really, really good coffee. Maybe they’re not using any kind of product or process signalling to make that decision. I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.

This kind of investigation may strip the emperor of his clothes. But it doesn’t invalidate your personal quest to make the best cup of coffee ever. That’s your own hobby. Still, I think we can stop pretending that if only we could tell the unwashed heathens of the good news of Jesus Christ Aeropress or whatever that they’ll suddenly join the crusade.

Easter & the fear of death

I had A Thought while listening to the sermon on Sunday. Bear with me here and let me know in the comments if I’m full of crap.

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but Jesus starts off by talking about death. Well, glorification and then death. It appears that the path to glory is death. Jesus is going to die and the result of that death is going to be the opposite of death. That’s the point of the seed illustration, I think. It’s easy to read that as being about the church and the growth of the Christian faith, but I don’t know if that’s what he had in mind. The picture is marred by a bad translation. Many seeds should be much fruit. This changes the metaphor completely: Instead of being about creation of disciples, it’s about what happens in this death/glorification. Before the death, you are a singular seed. After the death, you multiply much fruit. And Jesus followers are expected to follow him into this death.

Most important here is Jesus speaking of what happens when you hold closely to life (or in the negative when you strongly avoid death). If you hold on to your life (or your self, your psyche) too closely you end up losing it. Or more to the point you end up devaluing it. The value you assign to yourself is inversely related to how much self worth you actually have. If you give it up, on the other hand, it gains value — infinite value, in fact. In terms of death avoidance, what’s more valuable than eternal life?

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?

Jesus is afraid. Like anyone would be in the situation of predicting your own death. It’s natural to fear death. Much of our behaviour is driven by death avoidance. He quotes David in the psalms here, but where David cries out for salvation, Jesus immediately rejects his own prayer. What Jesus says next turns our death avoidance (and all the sin that comes with that) on its head:

No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

The response to the death is, “Father, glorify your name!” Not the usual human response, to surround yourself with money and possessions and status and all sorts of stuff to help soothe that fear of death.

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I’m interested in the idea of “the prince of this world”, alternatively translated “the ruler of this world”. This can easily be read to be the devil, however that would seem to come out of nowhere here. Maybe a more coherent reading is to think of “the ruler of this world” as death itself. After all we start this bit of scripture talking about death, the middle is about death, and it goes on after this bit to talk about death some more. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus here isn’t referring out of nowhere to some Big Bad but instead to the concept of death? Or perhaps these are the same things, death being the personification of the devil. Hebrews says something to this effect: “…that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”.

As a side note (and this a bit of inside baseball, so if any of these words don’t make sense to you, feel free to skip this paragraph; it’s not as important as it sounds), it’s easy to read this passage in the usual satisfaction model of substitutionary atonement, but let’s be honest, that’s reading a lot of stuff into the scripture that isn’t there. A more plain reading is a Christus Victor reading, which I think makes more sense. It can also be interpreted from a psychological/existential standpoint, which I think the passage supports quite well.

Here we see Jesus dying and rising again to drive out death or the prince of death, however you choose to interpret that. The point is the same. We are in bondage: We die, and we’re afraid of dying. My natural tendency is to hold my life close and to be threatened and fearful in the face of anything that so much as reminds me of my mortality.

To fix this, Jesus dies. He inverts the whole thing. He uses death against itself. He is raised again and in that rising again he casts out the prince of the world. He breaks the backs of the powers that be. He shows us how to hold loosely to our lives, how to be willing to give our lives away, and how this changes how we engage with the world. No more do we have to subscribe to the death avoidance of our previous lives and all the sin that brings about. No more do we have to participate in the rat race. When we give away our lives we’re free to experience them as a gift. We experience our lives as grace from God.

His death isn’t about shifting beads around on some moral abacus or settling some artificial honour score. It’s not about God satisfying God. Jesus’ death actually does something. He defeats death. He wages war and wins. And that is the message of Easter.

Bullet points for a Wednesday evening

Sleep. The spirit is willing but the flesh is obstinately restless. I haven’t done one of these in a long time, so here goes.

  • The most important thing is to be really good. This looks different for different people. Obviously. Really good polka isn’t really good klezmer. Okay, bad example. It’s not really good pop. Which isn’t really good baroque. Which isn’t really good big band. But damn, can you ever tell Really Good from a mile away. Even if you’re not fluent in the nuances, you know?
  • Really Good usually comes from the top. If you want Really Good, you have to set the example, set the tone. If you say you want Really Good but you actually want Good Enough, trust me, people know.
  • The harder road is more impressive. It’s not for everyone. Most of the time it’s not for me. But I’m still impressed when other people take the road that means more work, more commitment, and probably more heartbreak. They’re investing a bit of their soul. You can usually tell too, because people making these kinds of efforts tend to be either extremely attractive (people want to be around them) or extremely repulsive (they killed Jesus) or both (again Jesus). You get to sweat bullets or blood or whatever. No one ever wrote a book about the guy who kind of did the thing well enough to get by.
  • Luck is important. But it’s not everything. Most turds get flushed, regardless how lucky they are.
  • The best meetings have an agenda and a time limit. That’s a hard agenda and a hard time limit. The leader (I guess they need one of those too), needs to start at the starting time regardless if everyone is there, firmly take things back to the agenda, and end at the time limit regardless of whether or not you’ve “finished”. Obviously there can be exceptions, but it needs to be the rule enough that people understand that n=n, not n+15.
  • How much time? 45 minutes. An hour. I’ve rarely (or never) been in a meeting that went over an hour long where I thought, “Yeah, I’m glad that meeting went on that long.”
  • How do get your meeting under an hour? You already know. There’s that one thing everyone does (coming in late, chatting for the first half hour, talking about stuff that isn’t on the agenda) or maybe just that one guy who does these things. You may have to be a jerk to stop this stuff from happening, but I hope that’s a cost you have to pay to keep from wasting a whole bunch of time.
  • Put a poll in the field. Gather anonymous feedback. The feedback you get from people face to face (especially in Canada) is all crap and you might as well trash it before it starts affecting your judgement. You’ll get the odd honest person, maybe. But the anonymous people will be assholes and tell you exactly what they think.