October 30, 2011

Barista Prima K-Cup Review

I have to be honest. The seemingly relentless drive towards automation turns me off a bit. I feel, despite my age, like the proverbial old man on the porch, lamenting the long-gone good ol' days. Back then, people hand-pulled their own shots, and milked the cow right behind the counter.

But those (purely imagined) days are past. We live in a time obsessed with time - the saving of it, and the profiting from it. We like things now, but we do not want to compromise quality. Knowing that, it's not surprising that the Keurig coffee maker (and similar machines by several other companies) have become staples at homes and offices. They allow for the preparation of a perfectly acceptable cup of coffee, with the push of a button.

But acceptable to who? For that 99% of the coffee drinking population, quality is on the periphery, nudged to the side by chemical dependency. For those, who survived on Folgers for years, this is undoubtedly a godsend. But I am the 1%, the coffee intelligentsia. For me and my ilk, such technology is blasphemy, no more coffee than Wonderbread is bread.

If I can remove my tongue from my cheek for a moment, it's worth noting the degree of hyperbole there. Still, there is some truth to the matter. K-cups are largely created and marketed without an eye on those who might fancy a pour-over produced cup. But that's changing.

Green Mountain Coffee's new Barista Prima K-Cups claim to be "designed for the passionate coffee lover. Each cup reflects the consummate artistry and handcrafted care that only the most skilled baristas can deliver - until now." I'm not the most skilled barista - but I am decent. With that in mind, I took to tasting the Columbian cup. (Which was a review sample, for purposes of full disclosure.)

It's the lightest of the four offerings, and the only one that declares an origin. (The others are House, Italian, and French.) The description is as follows: Accented by wondrously bright, bold fruit notes and a distinctive hint of walnut, this deeply roasted cup elevates satisfaction into a realm all its own.

Obviously, this is confident marketing. And so it was with a hefty dose of cynicism that I sipped the coffee. That cynicism didn't last, however. While the result was not quite up to the lofty claims (really, it had no chance), the claimed flavors were present, with just a nip of acid on the side. The roast was a hair darker than I tend to prefer, but will provide a more hearty, woody flavor to those who want that sort of thing. Most noteworthy (and unlike all other K-Cups I've tried), the coffee didn't seem woefully under-dosed. That is, one K-Cup yields one legitimate cup of coffee, without over-extraction and resulting bitterness.

This will not replace the Hario cone or the French Press in the kitchens of those who don't mind crafting their coffee. But for those who would rather not (or even the lazy or rushed mornings), this is the best thing I've tried. It's as easy as can be, and of sufficient quality that you don't feel you've totally traded taste for convenience.

October 24, 2011

Coffee's Advocate

Another day, another study suggest that - more than make life worth living - coffee might well save it. This is not particularly noteworthy, in and of itself. The study only notes a correlation, which proves little to nothing. What's more, the mechanism is unclear, and the gap in consumption is massive. So what we've learned, really, is that people who drink a lot of coffee tend to have once type of cancer less than people who drink almost none. As such, there is no call to action, and it's said that people shouldn't start drinking coffee if they don't already enjoy it.

Were this one isolated case, I'd agree. Taken by itself, this one study isn't significant enough to support advocacy. But taken on the whole, there's a massive (and growing) body of evidence that suggests coffee deserves to be considered alongside fruits and veggies as potent natural medicine. And those, of course, are advocated for (however ineffectually).

Fruits and veggies are justifiably considered nutritional necessities, containing vitamins and phytonutrients that do innumerable good things inside the human body. But for all of the studies that suggest this, there are precious few that provide a causative link. And like the above study, taken on an individual basis, one might not think an apple a day worth eating. But we know better. We can take the cumulative knowledge, and glean from it that people should eat colorful plants, often at the exclusion of less nutritive things.

Thus, increase consumption of fruits and veggies; decrease consumption of less nutrient dense pseudo-food is considered sound advice.

In that same vein, I offer the following: Increase consumption of coffee, tea, and water; decrease consumption of sweetened liquids.

That, I think, is reasonable advocacy. No one needs to like coffee. But no one needs to like kale, either. You'd still be better off eating a side of that than french fries. So too can people make wise choices in their quest to hydrate and caffeinate. Coffee is a good one. So is tea, and of course, water. Anything sweetened, on the other hand, is probably not a good decision - whether it's sugar or sucralose/asparatame/neotame/etc. doing the sweetening.

October 21, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Blanche DuBuis: Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

It's a line, both tragic and iconic, from A Streetcar Named Desire. Apart from being mandatory high school reading, Streetcar helped vault the career of Marlon Brando, and to broach topics previously untouchable in American theater. Blanche, an archetypal southern bell languidly clinging to her physical prime, is being taken to a mental hospital when she utters that signature line. It references her promiscuity and physical dependency, as well as her inability to form meaningful relationships grounded in real emotion. (The genesis of this downward spiral was discovering her then fiance's homosexuality. Again, not something discussed much in those years.)

Though there is specific context to that line, and an aura of shocked disillusionment, so too is there a more broad context. There is the fact that Blanche's name might as easily be replaced by any of ours, and the line would retain its veracity and impact. We all depend on the kindness of strangers, and conversely, are often the stranger on whom another is depending.

These are small actions, most of the time, unnoticed. But those instances in which they are apparent, they ought to be noted. Were it not for a stranger's Tylenol, my haggard finish of the Heartland 50 miler would have been more painful - if not impossible. And were it not for those who took minutes off of their time to stop and walk with me, to boost my spirits and encourage me on, dropping might have seemed an option. As it was, I couldn't fall short of the expectations they had set. They said I could finish, and so I would do so.

My job gives me a beautiful opportunity to be the stranger in question, providing extra change here or a sample scone there. Those are the obvious deeds, the tangible ones. There are things besides that, the jokes that hit or the drinks that satisfy a need beyond caffeine.

But more often, I marvel at the kindness of customers, so often cited for their transgressions. I'm as guilty as anyone, quipping and complaining about the minutia of a mispronounced order or the mention of Starbucks. But there are so many more moments - too many to do justice to - that strike the opposite note. There is the customer who will wipe up a mess they made - or even one they didn't. There is the customer who fills the half & half carafe himself, or the customer who asks you how much longer you're open at the sight of a broom. I depend on these things, and on the everyday kindness, the smiles and the thank yous.

So does everyone. We are social creatures, but more than that. A social creature has meaningful interaction with a select few, but we expand far beyond our circle. Some say this cheapens the relationships we form, as there are so many, or hardens us to others. No doubt, these things can and do happen. But were it not for the kindness of strangers - on which we all depend - it would be so much more the norm.

Coffee Genius

Well, this is certainly something. Perhaps it's a sign of the Food Network's decline, or television's as a whole. Another reality/competition show. Great. Yawn. One thing it's not is subtle. Dripping with Iron Chef inspired panache, the whole thing seems to delight in its absurdity.

A confession: I adore the aforementioned Iron Chef, both the original Japanese model and the American import. I'm probably even more fond of Chopped, the more hectic and random variation on the cooking competition theme.

I like food. (Who doesn't?) And I like theatrics. (Same question.) Of course, incorporating that in to one's drink making is troublesome, if not altogether impossible. Speed is more the issue, and customers are probably not willing to try red snapper (or whatever "mystery ingredient") in their latte. And that's probably fair.

Even still, some part of me sees shows like this and thinks: "Why not coffee?" Well, there are probably a lot of reasons, but really, I don't want those answers. I want to imagine a giant conveyor belt and a bar area that looks like something off of a Star Trek set. I want someone to make this show, and I want to watch every episode, over and over, forever. Then, one day, I want to be on it.

Sure, there are already barista competitions. But, even for those of us who really care about the craft of coffee prep, those can be a chore to watch. You can't really see anything, and none of the tedious bits are edited out. Basically, the whole thing needs a producer, some glitz, and some Food Network air time.

(If anyone with the power to make the above happen reads this, I don't need any compensation, just take the idea. Please. And then, while we're at it, give me a show where I travel to coffee shops around the world, a la Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. Ratings gold.)

October 18, 2011

Debating Semantics

Some of my most successful days - if we're measuring by won/loss records - were spent in an ill fitting blazer, talking too rapidly about abstract foreign policy issues. I cited sources, but mostly, feigned the kind of authority it seemed I'd need to win. Usually, it worked. In the cases that it didn't, the other team blustered more convincingly than I. Such is the (comical, in hindsight) world of high school debate.

"Judge," I'd say, making sure to address the middle aged volunteer by their customary title, "We're debating semantics." Well of course, one might say. That's what you do in debate. But my point was this: We're spending time stressing over words rather than issues. There are child soldiers in Africa who depend on my plan passing. And also, I need another medal.

The plea seemed to work, fairly often. I'd lobby that the judge ignore the technical shortcomings of our plan, "Strip away the semantics", and do the right thing. It worked, not because I was a brilliant or hard-working debater, but because I had targeted a straw-man. People hate semantics; or at least, they think they do.

Despite that, I knowingly spend too much time emphasizing semantics. "Which is the darkest?" a customer will ask. "Well," I respond, "That's really not a very useful dichotomy. None of our single-origin beans are roasted dark, so as to preserved their unique characteristics. Given that, it's really a matter of what you prefer, in terms of body, acidity, and general flavor profile."

They blink, more confused than when they asked the question. It's not for the acquisition of bad information; everything I said was true. But it's useless to them. They want the information they asked for, as simply as possible. "Judge, the barista is debating semantics."

And I am; and I have; and I will. I like words, and I like coffee. Those things combined - along with my general love for trivia - lead me to over-share, and often enough, to avoid really answering the question they asked. I say pretty things, skirt the issue, and cast a "Oh you didn't know that? Well consider yourself learned" glance at the customer.

I really should stop doing that. Which is, as much as anything, why I'm writing this. I spend an awful lot of time talking about the things I do right, and the things I think are positive about the coffee bar experience. But sometimes, I do the wrong thing. Sometimes, I create a less-than-rosy experience. Sometimes - too often, honestly - I focus on semantics, and not the child soldiers in Africa.

So, which one is the darker roast? The sumatra.

October 14, 2011

Closing Time

They call it dusk, when it relates to the light/dark ratio permeating the sky. I learned, in a British literature class, that this period could also be referred to as "gloaming". It's a fantastic word, and more people should use it. Regardless, I'm talking about a similar period, that time when closing fades over in to closed - only not quite. You glance at the clock, and see the hands dancing in place. Should I sweep? Should I flush the second head? Should I even start messing with the drawer?

Yes, you should. Or at least, yes, I do. That doesn't mean those things won't get interrupted; they will. Nor does it mean certain tasks won't get undone; they will as well. You'll sweep, then spill the knock box. Customers will arrive at the eleventh hour, and ask for whatever drink requires you to use the device you just cleaned. You will want to tell them no, to bribe them with the soon-to-expire muffin, or perhaps that entire pot of coffee that's about to get dumped. But you'll make the drink anyway, maybe slightly emphasizing how much stuff you have to get back out and move around. They'll tip, and then you'll feel slightly like a dick.

None of this is a comment on how things ought to be, just how they are. Maybe there should be a rule against ordering large mochas in the last 15 minutes a coffee bar is open. But where's the line? And whenever you close, there's always that time right before that, which is now as fraught with potential for unwanted messes as that time we just did away with. So no, this is not about ideals or ambitions, gumdrops or rainbows.

This is about reality, and realizing that so long as you're open, you're open. Madden can wait. Dinner does not need to be started early. This is about realizing that, even after you realize that, you won't be any less caustic. You won't rush any less, or try as hard to avoid eye contact. You'll still hide in the corner, broom in hand, trying to peek at reflections like Jason fighting Medusa.

Mostly, this is about trying to pin down this phenomenon. You know it; you've lived it. But there's no word for it. Certainly, not one as cool as gloaming.

October 12, 2011

A Return to Coffee

One final word, on that race. (The report is fast becoming the most read thing I've put together, so I feel vindicated in spending so much time writing about it.) It would be easy, given that I fell so short of my stated goals, to be disappointed. Thankfully, it's just as easy not to be. Events happen; we choose how we perceive them. I ran 35 great miles, despite my mistakes. And those mistakes will be learned from. If this were easy, there would be no satisfaction in success. I can choose to be encouraged, and thus choose happiness; or, I can choose to be discouraged, and be pissed. I'm taking the former.

But enough about that. Today, I got back to work, after four days off. I am a barista first and foremost, who runs on the side - not the other way around. And much better, as it turns out, at making coffee drinks than running 50 miles. Of course, you could argue that making drinks is easier; but take someone who's never done either, and both will yield awful, messy results. The point is, the latte art clicked; the shots clicked; my feet clicked (ouch). I felt comfortable. I felt, as cliche as it sounds, at home.

And that's the odd thing. Or rather, I say it's odd, because there's the expectations that it is. But really, my affection for coffee bar work is well documented. It's just that most people hate their jobs - or so we're told. But I don't. Not at all. In fact, I miss it when I'm gone, and feel somehow infinitely right in returning. And this sentiment I'm expressing? Built up after a whopping four days off.

God forbid I ever have to do something else.

October 10, 2011

Heartland 50-Mile Race Report

I alluded to being prepared for every possible outcome previously. But of course, while those things cross your mind, they don't dominate. They can't. You have to think you'll succeed (however you measure that), or the starting line only precludes a walk to the gallows.

But there has to be balance. Hubris is punished, severely and constantly. Thus you strive to equate your respect for the distance with a respect for your fitness. Lean towards the latter, and, well, you'll end up like me.


The starting line was inauspicious, which was only surprising if you expected this to be a mega-marathon. There was a streak of white flour strewn across a paved road, and behind it, about 50 people. The disparity in appearances took some digesting, even disregarding my previous knowledge of the subject.

We huddled, then spaced out, roughly gauging how fit we looked in relation to everyone around us. I stood behind three well-equipped runners, all sporting Salomon gear and running store technical shirts. I had no hydration device whatsoever, thinking that there would be cups and fluids every four(ish) miles.

At the start, the three in front set the pace, and I followed, along with two others. We chatted a bit, once we turned on to the gravel road, and settled in to our pace. (On that note, I should say that, if this was gravel, steel wool is a toothbrush.) We comfortably slid in to the first aid station, which was no more than a marked cooler by the side of the road. There were no cups.

Frustrated, I pushed it. Slowly, a gap emerged between myself and the three behind. The two others had fallen behind. I was feeling good, and let my legs go. At about the nine-mile mark, I arrived at the first manned aid station, downed two cups of HEED, then sprinted off.

By now, I realized that building any substantial lead would be impossible. So I slowed just a touch, and the three trailers caught up quickly. I finally asked about what pace we were keeping, and was a bit horrified to hear we were regularly clocking 7:30 miles on some gnarly rock. Still, my pride wouldn't let me drop too far back, so I stayed with them until the second manned station, at mile 17.

There, I met my Dad (my crew for the evening), who gave me the water bottle I should have started with, and a change of shoes. By the time I left, the three had built a lead of at least 100 yards, and I resigned to let them go.

I ran alone until the turn-around. My legs were beginning to feel sore, but not horribly so. I expected some muscles soreness after running the first half in roughly 3:40, and was getting just that. Even still, I felt strong. I imagined an eight-hour finish, with which I'd have been pleased, and felt capable.

By now, there was a substantial gap between myself and the leaders, as well as myself and those following. This was lonely, silent trudging, the only sound the metronomic crunch of my foot on gravel. I had started with an mp3 player, but turned it off. The night was nice enough to not require distraction. Steadily, I made my way forward, concentrating on maintaining an easy effort.

Still, I bombed down the hills, as a nearly effort-free way to make up for lost speed. This, as it turned out, was not altogether wise. These were rolling, gradual hills. They were akin to setting the incline at "3" on a treadmill, in either direction, and they were very long. So my bombing was long and arduous. And my knees were beginning to feel it.

Even still, when I next saw my Dad, at mile 33, I was confident in a strong finish. I was solidly in fourth, and third was close enough, should he slow. But I wasn't counting on that. I took advantage of a second wind, courtesy of some ginger snap cookies, and went looking for third. I found him, not too long after, recognizing the glow of his Salomon gear at the bottom of a hill. Motivated, I charged, and my already aching knees disapproved. Specifically, my right IT band seized, and I stopped. After a few minutes of attempting to stretch it out, I decided to try and walk it off.

As it happened, that's what I'd spend the rest of the night doing. Walking. From about mile 35 on, I didn't run more than 10 yards consecutively. It hurt, first of all. But primarily, my leg simply wouldn't extend enough to make an attempt at the running motion. My goal of a sub-8-hour finish vanished, and I trudged across the finish line in just under eleven hours. 

My Feelings on All of This

It would be very easy to feel defeated right now. After all, I can't really walk, and nearly everything on my body hurts just a little bit. There are dark spots on top of my feet, where I'm almost certain I pulled something. And yet I'm encouraged, paradoxically, by my strong start and awful finish.

I started too fast, as I tend to do, but held the pace much better than I had any right. On that course, I'd have been very happy with my half-marathon, full-marathon, and 50k splits. But of course, the race was 50 miles. And my 50 mile time, sadly, was not anywhere near what I wanted and expected.

Mostly, the whole experience is motivation. I tested my fitness, and found that it's improved significantly sense I began doing this somewhat seriously. By all rights, I should be pleased with where I'm at, and I am. But I'm far from satisfied. That's where the finishing death march comes in. I proved I could run all those previous distances well; but there's still this challenge, incomplete. Until next year.

October 8, 2011

The Edge of Something That May or May Not Be Glory

If it seems I've been posting more lately, I have. And if it seems that his may be due to some creeping anxiety over today's race, it is. When this blog began, I claimed to strive for content that informed as much as entertained. I did not simply want to turn this piece of the internet in to my own personal dumping ground for daily happenings.

I've obviously failed in that initial goal, but have perhaps succeeded despite that. I've realized the therapeutic nature of writing for it's own sake, regardless of perceived valued of content. Furthermore, I've realized that content created for that reason is often much more compelling than something cobbled together with a specific aim in mind. (Objectively, such content tends to get more hits as well.)

All of this is to say, recently, I've been dumping quite a bit here. Sorry. But I'm nervous, anxious, excited, and just plain ready. Ready to stand at some powdered line in the grass, look up at a slate sky and chase the horizon.

Since putting in the 40-ish mile training/volunteer/etc. run several weeks ago, this race has been nearly my whole focus. Because of that, my coffee bar managing has been something of a godsend. Without something else over which to obsess, I may have started running laps around Lawrence until I collapsed. Thankfully, I've not lost my ability to obsess over coffee, and the making of it. These last few weeks have seen the best latte art I've ever produced, as well as the pleasant acquisition of a new bean (Costa Rican Tarrazu).

Coffee has also proved an invaluable training tool. Without it, morning runs would be impossible, the prospect of a ten-hour-day keeping me in bed. The more-frequent afternoon runs would be no easier, as post-shift legs are even lazier than pre-shift. The night runs would probably have still happened, if only because they were fueled by the kind of nervous energy that even caffeine can't produce.

Which brings me, finally, to the ironic use of coffee this morning: As an agent of relaxation. Caffeine aside, morning coffee is part of a comfortable routine, and a pleasant reminder that this is a morning like any other. It triggers the release of pleasure hormones, and less scientifically, just feels good. It's a drinkable security blanket, a warm cup of everythingisfine. 

And everything is fine. We'll see if I still feel that way in 24 hours.

October 7, 2011

Carbs: A Love Story

Managing a coffee bar has the obvious advantage of providing one with free coffee. The only limiting factor, really, is how much of a loss you're willing to stomach in order to caffeinate yourself. It can be a tricky balance to strike, drinking enough coffee to get work done, but not so much that you end up in the red. I usually limit my consumption to one or two mugs a day, with perhaps a double shot of espresso somewhere in there.

But today, I focused my gastronomical efforts on carbs, more than coffee. Carbohydrates have had their reputation sullied in the last decade or so, and not wholly without reason. Americans get most of their surplus calories from added sugar, which is of course a carbohydrate. Those of us who can do math (calorie balance, anyone?) never really fell for the Atkins hype, however, and stuck by our potatoes and oats.

And, occasionally, less wholesome options. Coffee bars tend to have some manner of baked goods, and mine is no exception. In fact, it's very much the rule. There are scones, muffins, cinnamon rolls, cookies, granola bars, breads, bagels, and I think that's all. It can be hard to keep track. Save the bagels, all of those are prepared by an in-house baker. The resulting pastries are massive, fresh, and exceptional.

And they have lots and lots of sugar. Normally, a have a decided aversion to the sweet stuff, the product of too much neurosis on my part. But normally, I'm not racing an ultra the next day. So, given these special circumstances, I decided to take advantage of yet another perk, courtesy of coffee bar management: Eating some of the stuff I was going to waste at the end of the day.

A few bites of  raspberry-oatmeal bar and oatmeal-cranberry cookie later, and I felt a surge of sugar whisking through my veins. I tried to will it in to storage, attempting the alchemy of converting glucose to glycogen. I wondered how anyone could make a daily habit of ingesting these things without bouncing off the walls, then realized just how tasty they were, and decided that I could probably get used to it. The (vegan) oatmeal-cranberry cookie, specifically, could easily become a dangerous habit. It utilizes mashed banana to compensate for the lack of eggs, and the result is more moist and sweet than any yolk could produce.

And hey, both items have oatmeal and fruit in the name. How bad could they be? Right? Right?

October 6, 2011

Restless Legs

I'm trying to find the words to make this sound more erudite, and suitably epic; but they escape me. I suppose sometimes embellishment distracts from the real magnitude of what ought to be the focus. I suppose this is one of those time.

So here it goes: I'm racing 50 miles this weekend. It's an ultramarathon called "Heartland: Spirit of the Prairie", held in Kansas' Flint Hills. The course consists of dirt and gravel, winding through said hills. It is not technical, but in that way, it is perhaps a different sort of challenge. Focusing on the rock you hope to not trip over allows for an isolated focus, and thus an ability to ignore the scope of your effort.

This race allows for no such delusions. There is only you, the other shuffling feet, and the beautiful expanse. Hills, rolling to the horizon, like waves on the ocean. And you, traversing them. Progress is intangible; perspective is impossible. But progress occurs, so long as you keep picking your feet up.

And my feet feel ready. Too ready, perhaps. To borrow a phrase from Roger Bannister, my legs feel "full of running". I've tapered, or so I think. Mostly, I've just done very little this week. What I have done has been easy. Nothing hurts, or is even sore. This is good, obviously. And though I know that, it's no council to my body. It wants to run, to find the point of discomfort and push against it. But that will come soon enough.

No matter how well one does in such a race, discomfort is inevitable. Things will hurt, maybe even cease to function momentarily. Your brain will protest. Sensing a deprived glycogen store and a mammoth calorie deficit, it will urge you to stop. Self preservation is a powerful motivator, so ignoring that voice will be difficult. Maybe you will; maybe you won't. Maybe you should; maybe you shouldn't. It depends on a host of things. What are your expectations? How did you train? How did you start?

There are too many scenarios. But still, I've tried to imagine all of mine in the last week. I've imagined a debilitating cramp or a sprained knee. I've imagined a crescendo of endorphins and adrenaline propelling me to a beautiful, nearly effortless run. I've imagined first place, last place, and every place in between.

And I've thought, too. I've looked at my race times, compared them to the field. I've come to the conclusion that, by the numbers, I should do well. I should, according to the sign-up website, win. This is, at once, shocking, horrifying, and inspiring. But mostly, it's irrelevant. Once we start running, past times and past places won't influence anything.

And that, ultimately, is what makes this whole endeavor so appealing. It's pure. We all start together. We all run that way. We all come back. First one to finish, wins. No refs, no teammates, no dropped balls or popped tires. No power-lines, either. No buildings. There is only you, the other shuffling feet, and the beautiful expanse.

October 4, 2011

Coffee and Community

I've written a lot about various bits of cafe culture, and the community that seems to form between those who frequent a particular bar. Of course, my perspective is that of the one person a coffee shop patron (usually) has to talk to. After all, without the barista, there is no drink. And that's a problem.

So my perspective is not that of the customer; and it's certainly not that of an academic. This is not to say, however, that cafe culture has gone entirely without study in the past. More notably to me, however, is the current work being done, right under my noes, by a former teacher of mine. There is nothing published yet (when/if it is, I'll certainly link it here), but the topics of study are fascinating to me.

Coffee shops, when first introduced to Europe, became breeding grounds for intellectual discussion. Speculation and inference says that switching from a depressant (alcohol) to a stimulant (coffee) helped to get neurons firing, and perhaps even helped give rise to the enlightenment. In short, the Arab world gave the West more than its retained classical library. This tradition of coffee shop as a "penny university" continued, some argue, until very recently.

The last decade has seen cafes transform slightly. While they are still places of congregation, they no longer foster the same sense of community. At least, that's the emphasis of my former teachers' study. He notes that people hide behind laptops and earbuds, shirking human interaction in favor of performing private functions. They are, paradoxically, collectively alone. At best, this can be called ambient socialization, but probably nothing more.

Whether this is inherently good or bad is beyond the scope of the paper, and indeed, not really an academic question. Regardless, the fact that the study is being done at all is exciting to me. Coffee shops (and the beverage in general) are such an integral part of the American experience, that it only seems logical. He's apparently considering several other cafe-centric paper ideas, including one examining the ways in which customers and baristas use each other to fill social needs. For obvious reasons, I'm particularly interested in that, and would like to be interviewed.

For the time being, however, this is all still percolating.