Friday, November 08, 2013

Check out my pal David Greco. Great musician with a very real opportunity to advance his career if this contest goes his way.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Reflections on the death of a Rick Warren's son

I'm not sure why the news that Pastor Rick Warren's son had taken his own life left such an impression on me. I'm not connected to the family, and unlike apparently everyone else, I don't have strong feelings one way or another about Rick Warren's theology or approach to ministry. Maybe I'm just becoming more aware of the expectations that are placed on pastors and, more unfairly, on their families. The very vocal minority is at it again, speaking out harshly against the Warren family, turning the knife inside the wound of what is already the most horrifying experience I can imagine. It makes me feel sick.

I've learned a few things about mental illness in the past few years, and the one thing I know is that there are no easy answers. I pray that we can begin to understand, though, that this kind of depression is essentially a disease for which there is no known cure. We ought to have a lot more sympathy about it.

When a young man tragically dies of cancer, virtually no one blames his family life or his insufficient trust in God or his misguided theology. We say "He lost his battle with cancer." Yet when it's suicide, the questions always arise—if not in cowardly anonymous comments on the newspaper's website, then in hushed conversations at the back of the church foyer, where we speculate about what must have gone wrong and pontificate about his eternal fate.

I have a simple suggestion that might help us be more charitable to those who struggle with mental illness. What if instead of saying "Matthew Warren committed suicide," we said "He lost his battle with depression"?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Terrific coffee: at home, simply, and on the cheap

I recently started drinking my coffee black. Why? Because I went to a shop that roasts and brews coffee with more care than any place I’ve ever been before, and it turns out that coffee actually tastes pretty good without cream and sugar, when it’s done right. I have since learned that you can prepare fantastic coffee in the comfort of your own home for a fraction of what you’d pay at the local pour-over cafe.

There are a hundred different ways to get from A to Z, but you have to know how coffee works before you can decide which method is right for you. Naturally, I do have a specific recommendation, which I’ll get to in a moment (or you can get in an Amazon list here). But first, there are two non-negotiable rules that you must follow regardless of your brew method.

Rule 1: You need to use whole beans, grinding them evenly and per use. Ground coffee is not remotely shelf stable; it stays fresh for about 15 minutes after grinding. This is why bags of pre-ground coffee, to say nothing of K-cups and pods, yield such poor results. So you need your own grinder if you’re going to go down this road. And it needs to be a burr grinder; blade grinders turn some of the beans to dust and leave others in chunks. Not good.

This is going to be the most expensive part of the process, but it is also by far the most important. Even poor quality coffee beans, if they are ground per use, will taste better than just about any pre-ground coffee you have been using.

Rule 2: You need freshly roasted coffee beans. Coffee stays fresh for about two weeks after it’s roasted. The unavoidable consequence of this fact is that it’s basically impossible to produce quality coffee beans at enormous scale. This is why Starbucks coffee will never taste as good as what you can get at a local shop. More on beans and how to procure them below.

Really, that’s most of it. Those two rules can take you from “cafeteria swill” to “much, much better than Starbucks” in no time. If you’re an 80/20 rule kind of person, you’re done. But if you want to see a little deeper down the rabbit hole, here is the most complicated rule, the one that accounts for most of the debates and confusion about coffee (and a lot of the fun, too!):

Rule 3: Understand the chemistry. Or at least understand that it’s chemistry. You don’t need to know all the details, but the basic idea is simple: when hot water contacts ground coffee, it acts as a solvent, dissolving solids from the coffee into the liquid that ends up in your cup. This process is called extraction, and everything else about brewing coffee is related to it: brew time, coffee-to-water ratios, temperature, agitation method, etc. The various brew methods simply introduce different variables into the extraction process. For example, you can agitate the mixture by stirring (e.g, French press) or pouring (e.g., Hario). Again, you do not need to understand everything about this, but it helps to know that the variables matter.

“At home, simply, and on the cheap”

You don’t have to go to a fancy coffee bar to drink amazing coffee; you can make it yourself. And although it is certainly possible to get lost in the weeds searching for the perfect method, I strongly recommend my system, which favors simplicity over utter perfection. You don’t need a $230 grinder, a $50 pouring kettle, or even a $45 French press. My version is much more affordable: you can get everything you need for less than $100 out the door, and that includes your first bag of beans. Even better, you can do it in steps to spread out your cost. Here’s how:

If you only upgrade one thing, make it your grinder.

I recommend you start with a hand-turned coffee grinder, specifically the Hario Mini Mill Slim ($35). Why a hand grinder? Simple: it’s by far the cheapest way to get a quality burr grinder. You are going to make one cup of coffee at a time, and that only takes a minute or two of grinding—less time than it takes the water to boil.

If you want the best value for an electric grinder, my recommendation is the Capresso Infinity ($90). We’ve used one of these in the kitchen at Artisan Church for years, and it produces very good results. Of course, if you have money to burn, by all means get the Baratza I linked above. Get one for me while you’re at it.

If you upgrade two things, find a way to get fresh beans.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a quality coffee roaster, this is a breeze. For me, it’s Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, just down the street from my house. Now: lots of coffee shops sell whole beans, but they are not always what I would call “quality” beans. Generally speaking, if the coffee is labeled by its country of origin (e.g., Guatemala) instead of a cutesy name (e.g., Moose Prints), you are good to go. If you’re not sure, just ask someone behind the counter where and how long ago the beans were roasted, and notice whether their eyes light up or glaze over.

If you do not live near a quality roaster, my recommendation is to get a subscription to Tonx Coffee (click for a free sample). Think of Tonx as the Columbia House Record Club for coffee beans: they select, source, and roast the beans and ship them to you on a schedule. Tonx removes the mystery and the hassle from the equation. It’s pricier than buying your beans locally, but for many and possibly most people, this is the best option right now.

That covers Rules 1 and 2. And again, that’s most of what you need to know. But if you’re still reading, you probably want to know my brewing method. Here you go:

For the simplest, most consistent way to brew a stellar cup of coffee, I recommend the Clever coffee dripper ($22). The Clever is sort of a hybrid between a pour-over method and a full immersion method. (Experts will quibble with this definition. Let them.) It’s very easy to use: put a cone filter in the brewer, measure out your coffee grounds, put in all the hot water at once, stir, cover, and let it steep. When it’s finished, you place the Clever dripper right on your cup, and (wait for it…) a clever little valve is released, and the brewed coffee drips into your cup. Clean-up is the easiest of any method I’ve used: pull the filter and grounds into the trash or compost bin, rinse out the brewer, and you’re done.

Now here’s the last thing. You can measure out your beans and water by volume, i.e., by using measuring spoons and cups. But remember, this is chemistry, so precision matters. If you want to go the extra mile, you need a kitchen scale that measures in grams. (A common coffee-to-water ratio is 1:16.) I use and recommend the Eat Smart Precision Pro ($25). It’s quick, simple, unobtrusive, comes in a range of colors, and—importantly—it uses AAA batteries, not weird watch batteries.

To sum up: buy a Hario hand grinder, a Clever dripper, and an Eat Smart Precision Pro gram scale. Get yourself this modest gear and some great beans, and you’ll be drinking the best cup of coffee you have ever had at home!

Here is everything but the beans in an Amazon list.

Here is the link to get a free trial of Tonx Coffee.

Epilogue: Why not an AeroPress?

Marco Arment, the Internet’s gadget researcher, has long recommended an AeroPress as the best method for brewing coffee at home. Partly because Marco is an influencer (and deservedly so), the AeroPress preference has practically become coffee gospel among online geeks. Just watch this delightful video by Adam Lisagor to see how people feel about the AeroPress.

I felt the same way at first. It does make great coffee. But I no longer think it is the best method, and it’s definitely not the easiest.

There are three problems with the AeroPress. First, it makes a concentrate—the manufacturer claims that it makes espresso, but that’s absurd—which has to be diluted unless you like very small amounts of very strong coffee. Second, it requires a fine grind, which takes much longer by hand or requires you to buy a more expensive grinder than what I recommend for people just starting out. And finally, the method is comparatively complicated and fussy. It’s too easy to miss the narrow tube when you’re pouring in the coffee or (worse) the hot water, and the timing of the plunging/pressing process is hard to get just right. Skip it for now.

For further reading:

1. The Wirecutter: Gear for making great coffee. This is what turned me on to the Clever dripper. (The Wirecutter is a definite bookmark for find the best gadgets to buy, by the way.)

2. Sweet Maria’s Tips on Brewing Coffee. A little more info on the chemistry.

3. Lifehacker’s Morning School,” a series of very helpful articles by the founder of Tonx Coffee.

4. Marco Arment’s review of Tonx Coffee, wherein he makes his now-famous 3-part recommendation about how to make great coffee.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Making Pastebot Sync work on Mountain Lion

I've been using a great iPhone clipboard app by Tapbots called Pastebot for a few years now. It's a little copy/paste utility that stores and edits stuff you've copied using your iPhone or iPod touch. But the best feature of the app was always that it could copy and paste to and from your Mac using a secondary app called Pastebot Sync.

With the introduction Mountain Lion, Pastebot Sync stopped working for me. Every time I wanted to use it, I had to open the preference pane and turn it back on. After not getting much of a reply from the good people at Tapbots when I asked about it via Twitter (hey, they've been busy!), I just figured it had been abandoned. Not so. Here's how to fix it.

The problem is with Apple's Gatekeeper, a new feature designed to protect casual users from potentially harmful apps from untrusted developers. (More details in that link if you care.) The problem is that you can't bypass Gatekeeper for Pastebot Sync if it was already installed when you upgraded from Lion or Snow Leopard.

Go to System Preferences, and right-click on the Pastebot Sync icon. Choose Remove "Pastebot Sync" Preference Pane. Once it's gone, redownload it from the Tapbots website. After downloading the .dmg file, double-click it to mount the disk image. Then you'll see the Pastebot Sync icon; open it by right-clicking and choosing "Open" rather than by double-clicking it. This tells Gatekeeper that you want to allow the app to open even though it's not approved as safe. (You can ignore the warnings that may pop up about this; the app is indeed safe.) You should be good to go now!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reason and the Season

"Happy solstice, the real reason for the season," my atheist friend Dave posted on Facebook. Well, I suppose it depends on how loosely one defines the word season.

Dave, like most atheists, knows more about the history of Christianity than your average Christian. And so Dave knows that the traditional dating of the birth of Jesus is very likely inaccurate and that it was probably chosen by the church establishment to coincide with pre-Christian religious ("pagan") ceremonies such as sun-worship and solstice observance. And of course, on a less combative note, Dave understands the science behind seasonal changes and the tilt of the earth. But I do suspect he's engaging in a bit of good-natured teasing of us Christians, and so I'd like to respond.

However unlikely it may be that December 25 was the actual birthdate of Jesus, what is not in dispute is that Jesus was a real person of enormous historical significance. (Only the fringiest of fringe historians disputes the historicity of Jesus; it would be roughly equivalent to the number of scientists who believe global warming is a hoax or that the evolution did not occur.) And regardless of what one may think of Jesus' many claims to be God—the fact is that at this time of year, large numbers of people in all parts in the world and in nearly every culture do celebrate his birth. The overwhelming majority of us sing December songs to the newborn King, not Mithras or Ra.

So yes, in one sense, solstice is the "reason" for our observance of Christmas this month instead of, say, September or May. But it is a frail trick of semantics to suggest that the season is anything other than a joyous, worldwide celebration of the birth of Jesus, emmanuel, "God with us."

 * * * * * * * * * *

One thing we can all agree on—Christians, atheists, and pagans alike—is that the return of longer days is a happy occasion and ought to be cause for our celebration, especially on a rainy 40-degree day like today. Therefore, I join with my friend Dave in the first part of his greeting: happy solstice! But here's what I will add:

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John 1:5

Monday, November 26, 2012

Best Christmas music

I was itching for some new Christmas music this year, so I asked my Facebook friends to share what their favorite album was, and why. Here are the most commonly-cited ones, along with brief descriptions and links to Amazon MP3. (If you buy anything through the Amazon links I'm including, I'll get a little referral bonus—cool.)

Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas: I bet you already have this one, but if you don't, you should. It's currently on sale for $3.99, which is an absolute steal for the jazz brilliance and nostalgic power contained within.

Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, Jingle All The Way: This is a great, eclectic holiday album. I bought this a couple years ago after seeing the Flecktones on their holiday tour. The music is (of course) virtuosic, and the arrangements are original and clever. Great stuff, but not for traditionalists.

Holidays Rule: This appears to be this year's "Christmas songs by hip new artists!" album, and the lineup is about what you'd expect: Fun., Punch Brothers, The Civil Wars, etc. (What? No Mumford & Sons?) I haven't listened to it, but especially given that it's on sale for $3.99 at the moment, I'd say it's worth a shot.

Rosie Thomas, A Very Rosie Christmas: Strong recommendations from a couple trusted friends. This is a Bandcamp link because it's not available from Amazon at this time. You can listen to the whole thing at the site—sounds great to me so far: very strong vocals and good arrangements. [Update 11/29: You can get a FREE sampler of this album on Noisetrade.]

Anything by Folk Angel: A few more really effusive recommendations for this band/troupe, which releases a new album each year. I've really loved what I've heard so far. This will probably be the stuff I end up buying for our own collection.

Sufjan Stevens, Songs For Christmas: Several people recommended Sufjan's Christmas albums. This one is five albums currently selling together for $15.99, which seems like a fair price. Although I'm probably exactly in bull's eye of the Sufjan Stevens fan demographic, I've never taken the time to get to know his music. I have liked what I've heard, though, and the samples sound really good. [Update 11/29: You can get a FREE sampler of this album on Noisetrade, too!]

John Denver & The Muppets, A Christmas Together: Someone suggested this and it got 2 "likes." I have no further comment.

Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year and Snow Angels: [Update 11/27: Snow Angels is available FREE on Noisetrade right now!] Tracey and I have pretty much worn these albums out over the years. If you don't like Over the Rhine, you probably shouldn't be reading my music recommendations in the first place. (Too late, though! The list is over.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My CrossFit Experience

A month ago, Tracey and I purchased a LivingSocial deal and joined a CrossFit gym. Not wanting to be That Guy, I quipped on Twitter and Facebook, "Just started a month of CrossFit. I promise never to speak of it again." Today, on the last day of that month, I decided to break that promise, because I have found it to be a pretty tremendous experience worth sharing about. Also, I was mostly kidding.

We are doing a modified version of CrossFit called Bootcamp that is designed to teach people the basic movements of the CrossFit regimen. Bootcamp is an interval based workout: six exercises repeated three times each for one minute at a time. There is a fifteen second break between stations and a one minute break after every third station. If you pace yourself wrong, you'll be dead after the first round. It's as intense as you make it, and many full-scale CrossFitters have told me that they think it's just as hard as their regular workouts.

I love it.

I was probably in the worst shape of my life when we started. I hadn't done anything active in about two years, for reasons that I don't need to go into right now. I was a little nervous about starting, because I wasn't sure how I'd handle it and because I am generally intimidated by gym rats and personal trainers. But thankfully, the people at Flower City CrossFit couldn't be nicer or more accommodating. It has been a very low-stress experience to work out there.

I'm not going to share before and after photos or weight amounts—of my body or the dumbbells I choose. But I'll say this: I have been a casual athlete all my life, and I've never had better workouts than this, and I've never actually enjoyed going to the gym until now. Let me tell you, I ran a marathon five years ago, and I get ten times more out of 18 minutes of Bootcamp than I ever did out of three hours of running.

(Never again with the distance running. How many miles per week should you run? Approximately one more than mile than you are being chased by bears.)

Most importantly, CrossFit passes the true test of a worthy self-improvement: it spills over into other areas of life. I'm going to bed earlier, eating better, being more disciplined in my work, and accomplishing more in most of my endeavors. It's expensive, but it's 100% worth the cost. I'm not sure how long we'll be able to afford it, but for now: we are signed up for another month.

I'd promise never to mention it again, but we know how that would turn out.