Friday, January 25, 2008

I am so l33t it hurts

Ok, so even I would have to admit that this is a fairly trivial side of computational aesthetics -- how your machine looks. However, I couldn't resist designing my own "skin" for the new laptop. In addition to being sick of seeing just how quickly the white plastic was scratching, there's a certain utility in being able to tell your white laptop apart from the rest: I'm living very close to Cupertino now, and this is definitely Apple country.

So, I scanned in a page from Thomas Pynchon's V. and uploaded it to Unique Skins' skin-designer utility. Props to them for providing this service at the best price -- they undercut some of the other players in the "skins" business by about ten bucks.

If you're not hip to the skins (and why would you be unless you want people to know how cool you are just by looking at your iPod or, uh, MacBook) there is a thriving business of printing images on pre-cut slices of 3m ControlTac, which is a removable, non-gooey self-adhesive vinyl. There are a bunch of people doing this: GelaSkins, which specializes in images from hip graffiti- or anime-inspired artists, MacVatar, which is obviously Mac-oriented, and Skinit, which seems to serve more plebeian well as dozens of others. They protect the finish of your new (disposable in three-five years) laptop investment, but mostly allow you to modify the appearance without spending a lot of cash, adding a bulky shell, or voiding your warranty.

Well, that will end the commercial messages for the day.

Nerd note: this is the place where Pynchon claims that the classic WWII-era graffito, the Kilroy, was derived originally from a band-pass filter; this ties into my obsession with the
history of computing, and WWII's influence in pushing the computer to the prominence it has today. Plus I think the band-pass Kilroy looks rockin'.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Vacuum Brew

Long time. Even faithful readers have no doubt left the inevitable withdrawal period caused by a lack of my ruminations; perhaps a few have, like mice once addicted to cocaine, continued to grab this page once in awhile. No matter: an update has arrived.

Over the winter break, an excursion that took me back to Brooklyn for the first time in several years, I had a chance to sample the nectar from a vacuum brewing device owned by the illustrious Keith Polasko of Split the Lark, who, in addition to being perhaps the best singer/songwriter left alive since the untimely self-instantiated death of Elliot Smith, is an aficionado of a beverage often considered merely quotidian: coffee.

In his apartment (littered with all sorts of amazing objects; in addition to his musical pursuits, he is an avid collector of most things arcane or obscure) there sits a modern stainless-steel Cuisinart drip brewer, unused, atop the refrigerator. It has been upstaged completely by a Yama vacuum brewer, a technology which, though perhaps older, is generally considered to deliver a superior brew. I'll admit that I sat and stared at the thing during its entire cycle: I'd never seen it before. The water slowly boils in the lower chamber, until the upper chamber is almost filled; then, you take it off the heat and the vacuum in the sealed lower chamber sucks the water back down, leaving the grounds.

It's a brew favored by connoisseurs; the new Blue Bottle Cafe in San Francisco has just installed a bar so they can serve it. Although it doesn't have the "set it and forget it" ease of a drip machine, it certainly has more panache, and the brew is certainly better than most drip machines: it's effectively unfiltered for better body, with no stripping of aromatic compounds, and maintains close to the perfect brewing temperature for better extraction. Most drip machines don't get hot enough for proper extraction, which is fine if you're using bitter, mass-produced, pre-ground stuff, but means that you're missing out on some of what your locally-roasted microlots have to offer.

Although I start my day with espresso, I have been enjoying brewed coffee myself. I brought a bag of Ethiopian Idido Misty Valley home-roast with me when I headed east, which, when brewed drip or single-cup, had a much fruitier profile than I'd gotten from the espresso machine. I had to admit that I enjoyed it quite a bit more brewed. Brewed coffee also tends to have a flavor shift as it cools; sometimes for the worse, often just...different. Like seeing more facets of a gem. Although I'm still partial to espresso (at 9 bars of pressure, you get things out of the beans that don't appear at one atmosphere) brewed coffee is certainly better for single-origin coffees that have a "delicate" profile: usually more acidic coffees with more fruit, less body, and floral aromatics, which are roasted lighter.

So I've been making some pots of press, and secretly lusting after a Yama. More gear is the last thing I need, of course, but there's something awfully charming about that siphon.