Friday, July 22, 2005

I'm not a virgin anymore

Recently, I found myself in Washington DC, and it was there that finally, after a plump 27 years on this mortal coil, I lost my virginity. I was deflowered, as it were, in a coffee shop, called Murky Coffee, located near DC's precious little Eastern Market. There, I became an man, not with the assistance from a member of the opposite sex, or even the same sex, but from an unbelievably good cup of coffee.

My decadent mistress on that fateful afternoon was a decaf mocha latte. On first appearance, she was something other-worldly and unlike any drink I had ever seen. She was topped with a sexy bit of "latte art," resulting from skillful mixing of the espresso oils with the steamed milk. She was not just sexy; She was luxurious and smooth, thick and heady, and tasted of an amazing decaf Peruvian espresso blend. The texture of the milk, and the quality of the espresso shot was unspeakably decadent. I have never tasted anything that approached such a pure, unadulterated essence of pleasure.

Sadly, all chain coffee shops, like Starbucks, and even most independent coffee shops are designed never to produce beverages like this one. There are two reasons why. First, the milk has to be frothed and steamed quite precisely, producing, in the lingua-franca of espresso freaks, a "micro-foam." The micro-foam is characterized by its thick texture, similar to that of a light whipped cream, the result of infintesimal bubbles of air embedded in milk proteins. Interestingly, I have gotten this type of milk in my mochas 3 or 4 times at various Starbucks, apparently due to an accidental fluke. When I explicitly ask for it, the baristas never know how to reproduce it.

The second reason regular coffee shops fail to produce these lovely drinks, they pour a cup of steamed milk and then dump the espresso shot(s) into the cup in one, uncaring stroke. To get the beautiful rosetta (and other lovely patterns), the milk apparently must be poured in layers into a cup containing the espresso. The alternating light/dark effects are the result of the slow and controlled mixing of espresso oils (the "crema") floating on the surface of the shot with the milk. Surely, since Starbucks and friends are driven primarily to reduce customer wait times, they will never purposely produce such a beverage.

Anyone who has, until now, suffered with only Starbucks-caliber drinks must seek out and experience one of these amazing drinks. Unfortunately, as best as I can tell, there are, only a few hundred coffee shops, and at most, several hundred coffee shops in the United States that can make beverages like these. I fear that unless you are in a large city, you will never find such a coffee shop. Even worse, several large cities, such as Philadelphia, seem to have no such shops. Your best bet is to google for "latte art *your city*," and hope to find a reference to a local coffee shop. While latte art is just a decoration on a mighty fine, high quality coffee, most places that really care seem to add the finishing touch.

Since that fateful day in DC, I have moved to California. There, in San Francisco, I have found two coffee shops that serve these high-caliber coffee drinks. The first is Ritual Coffee Roasters, and the second is Cafe Organica, which has been voted (by somebody) the best coffee shop in San Fran. Of the two, I must recommend Ritual Coffee Roasters over Organica, primarily because the latter is much more expensive, and the former has a much more interesting communistic atmosphere, more central location, and better pastries. As far as I can tell, if you're in the area, you would be a fool to get coffee at any other place in the city. In comparison to Murky Coffee, these San Fran offerings produce better foamed milk, although I am disappointed that their espresso does not touch my heart as Murky's Peruvian decaf has.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Etymology. It's a cool thing. Linguistics and the study of the evolution of languages is something that has fascinated me for quite some time now.

In the interest of "full-disclosure," I am an anti-perscriptionist when it comes to language. I believe that it is "stupid" on many levels to say things like "that isn't a word" or "you can't have sentences that end with prepositions" or whatever. If a speaker's intent is conveyed through their utterance, then language has done its job and the utterance was "correct." The only time that language is used "incorrectly" is when the listener does not understand what the speaker meant.

Given my worldposition, the construction of new words always entertains me. This weekend, I was fortunate enough to learn about an American word that I have been using since my time at Drexel University.

The word in question is "borked." I first encountered the word from a man named Jonathan Sevy. He worked in my lab, and sat right next to me. We spoke often about the things that tickled our fancy throughout the day. Technology, sociology, history, religion, etc. We were a good match. One day, John uttered the word "borked." I thought he meant "broke" but somehow, he simply misconjugated the word. I was amused, but I let it pass. He said it again shortly thereafter. I had to bring it to his attention, and tell him that I liked his word!

Either I assumed, or he told me, that the word was a corruption of the word "broke." It was poetic to me. The word represented the concept in its entirety. "Broke." To destroy. Its speaker stops not only at telling us that something has been destroyed --- the speaker actually breaks the verb itself to emphasize just how broken it is. It is a primordial example of meta-language: a meaning embedded in how well the speaker is effecting the "correct" language. It is beatiful and poetic. It is borked.

If you search online, you will find that many dictionaries simply list the definition of the word bork as being broken. Some list the etymology as being from our favorite muppet, the Swedish Chef, who throws "borks" into all his utterances. Over the weekend, I learned a new, deeper etymology for my lovely linguistic candy. My unlikely source was NPR, which was discussing the battle for supreme court nominations that our country is now suffering through.

The story starts, as many good stories do start, with Watergate. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox requested Nixon's Oval Office Tapes, and Nixon ordered the Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Elliot resigned, rather than carry out the order, leaving Bork as the acting Attorney General. Bork was then ordered to fire Cox. Bork wanted to resign as well, but Elliot told him not to (Odd, I know. Presumably, it was for fear of ensuing chaos).

During this time, "borked" became known as firing somebody (like Archibald Cox) for doing what they were hired to do (like investigate Nixon's criminal activities).

Then, in 1987, Ronald Reagan nominated a man named Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for Mr. Bork, he was fairly conservative in his views, and it was believed that he would reverse critical Supreme Court decisions, such as Roe v. Wade. The pro-choice groups ate him for breakfast, and eventually the Senate rejected Bork.

During this time, "borked" became known as having one's presidential appointment defeated by the US Senate.

This story is fantabulous. I am amazed that Mr. Robert Bork has had such influence on the American linguistic playing field so that his name would become verbized twice, and no less, and with two completely different meanings.

I should note that much of the facts for this story come from, which is one of the most profound sites on the web, not to mention a source for the nouveau verb "to wiki."

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