Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Lovin it?

Inspired in part by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, I decided recently to take a trip to McDonald's, for a little first breakfast -- I was meeting up with Helen for coffee a couple hours later, but I had to eat something before then.

My focus on the trip, however, was the coffee as opposed to the food. I haven't been to McDonald's in a long time, since I put them on my banned list in the spring of 1988. I even typed them a letter, on my father's old college Corona, explaining (using both the black and red ribbons, for emphasis) how I disagreed with their use of polystyrene containers for most of their food.

Earth Day can have a profound effect on a six-year-old.

Anyway, I'd heard that Le MacDo has swapped over to "Premium Roast" coffees in the past couple of years, and felt that, as a big coffee fan and national coffee corporation employee, I ought to try it out. Furthermore, I've read that the blend that McDonald's describes as "a blend of Arabica beans grown in Brazil and the mountains of Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica" is sourced from Seattle's Best Coffee -- at least in the Pacific Northwest (Ed Note: Searching for a citation for this information, as well as information of McD's suppliers of coffee in other regions).

I've only liked coffee whatsoever for about four years, now, when I learned how much I enjoyed hanging out at cafes to read, study, and generally live the life of a Cascadian. Up to that point I drank only tea, and I decided that it was somehow morally wrong to pay two bucks for something that is literally identical to what I can make at home for a quarter. But I didn't want to be at home, you see. So I started drinking coffee beverages, mostly simple cafe Americanos.

Skipping ahead a bit, I'll actually decide between, say, Guatemalan and Indonesian beans to drink, depending upon my mood and what I'm eating, so I though I'm still fairl new in my coffee journey I thought I'd give the joe that's apparently giving SBUX a run for its money.

First of all, let me talk about the money. People give coffee shops a hard time about their prices. In Seattle, at least, that means bagging on SBUX their "expensive coffee." I suppose I agree that it's pretty easy to create a drink that costs as much as a fast-food meal (whatever THAT is worth), and I am surprised that plenty of people buy these on a daily basis. That's not coffee, though, and you know it. Shoot, people who are concerned about paying five dollars for a drink of any kind haven't been to a bar lately, that's for sure.

Anyway, the McDonald's Premium Roast cost $1.39 for a twelve-ounce cup, which is a bit more than I expected considering the same at Starbucks is $1.55. I expected there to be more than a negligible spread in price. I didn't ask specifically, but I don't believe that there is a cheaper option, a non-premium roast, or what have you. Also, for a light breakfast, I bought two of McDonald's hash brown patties. I noticed with a bit of suprise that they had pancakes, biscuits, and other things that would make a "full breakfast." Still, I couldn't quickly sort out the menu, there was no line, and, hey, two for a dollar, right?

So, let's see what we have.

First of all, this cup is pretty high tech; a far cry from the styrofoam coffee cup I'm sure I'd have gotten if my six-year-old self had ordered one in 1988. At Starbucks, a single cardboard cup with brewed coffee is too hot to comfortably touch. With a corrugated cardboard cup sleeve, it's fine, but you can still feel the warmth through the paper. The Mcdonald's cup is some kinda sleeve-cup creation. It's not just thick carboard, that wouldn't insulate right -- I think it has an air pocket built in. Click to see the large version of the picture, you can notice a "lip" at the bottom of the cup where this perma-sleeve joins the main cup body. My hand can barely feel that there is hot liquid inside.

For all we've heard about the famous hot-coffee lawsuit, McDonald's brew wasn't noticably hotter than at any other cafe. Now, Yours Truly is famously able to tolerate very high-temperature drinks, so I might be a poor judge, but I'm guessing they lowered their brew temp to what I understand is an industry-standard 195 degrees. I'm told they previously used overheated water, all but boiling, to get the most extracted coffee per pound of beans.

These are the areas I was curious about most in McDonald's souped-up coffee, since without correct proportion, grind, water, and most of all freshness, you'll never get a decent cup.

On to the coffee itself: how was the drink that Consumer Reports declared defeated Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and Burger King? Well, it was fine.

That about sums it up.

Okay, I'll give you a bit more. For someone who drinks many of Starbucks' brews on a regular basis, and is a great lover of Stumptown and Vivace when I can afford the indulgence, it was extremely mild. However, it lacked the sparkle and liveliness that a solid breakfast coffee ought to have -- there was only a little acidity. Likewise, though it had hints of the nutty aromas typical of Latin American beans, certainly it was but a fleeting memory of the rush of walnuts and hazelnuts I enjoyed in the Guatemalan I had at Stumptown some weeks ago.

What it also didn't have is anything offensive, whether the heavy, earthy notes of a solid Sumatran coffee that might be off-putting to an occasional coffee drinker, or the bitterness of an over-extracted batch. It was fresh, hot enough, and delivered with an 85% genuine smile. Clearly the men behind the arches designed this as a brew that takes all comers, since being underwhelmed is certainly better for a fast-food restaurant than being disgusted would be.

In conclusion, there's absolutely nothing wrong with McDonald's Premium Roast coffee, but I wouldn't seek it out.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Speaking Too Soon:

"This weather just sucks," she declares to me as she turns sideways to fit both the lattes she's carrying along with her considerable bulk through the front door of Starbucks. What was a chilly but clear morning has turned into an afternoon of rain, slush, and snow flurries. Breezy, highs in the upper thirties.

I follow behind her, and, with half a smile, agree, "It IS a little bit wet out."

"It's just nasty," she says forcefully, and braces herself for the walk across the parking lot to a waiting silver sport-utility. As I pull my scarf over my mouth, she gives me a glance. I unlock my big commuter bicycle from the rack out front, holster the u-lock at my hip, in the strap of my messenger bag, and laugh behind the wool. I'm not sure that she actually feels silly, but I'd like to think maybe it dawned upon her. While I'm not necessarily trying to bludgeon folks over the head with bike commuting, I do enjoy making a point by example.

I talked about the awesomeness of Pacific Northwest cycling, so it's only fitting that I've gotten to experience the OTHER side of it this week. Snow in what is nearly April is a strange thing for the area, for sure, as are highs of thirty-seven degrees.

Whatever. You can do this. So can I.

Also, there is something awesome about riding in the snow, too, since you know it's not going to accumulate too much onto the ground with it still above freezing. It IS funny how much people absolutely go nuts. Every day, as I ride over the I-5 bridge, I've had my own little chuckle at the thousands stuck in traffic, going almost literally nowhere.

Today's Pet Peeve of the Day becomes an asshole of the day in the form of my new neighbor, who thankfully got quite quickly smacked down. I live in an apartment complex in which each entry-staircase has six apartments: three floors, two doors per floor. I live on the middle floor. The new neighbor on the ground floor, on my side, is physically closest to the stairwell. For some reason, this gave her the idea that along with her rent she somehow got the space below the stairwell.

This is the place where I've been parking my aforementioned commuter bike. It's out of the way, out of the rain, and works quite nicely. The second day she lived there, I found a note on my bike as I left for work. It began "Your bike belongs "in" your apartment, not in my space..." Oh, you think so, do you? To be blunt, where the fuck do you get off, lady? She finished up the little nasty-gram with the demand that I either move my bike, or she'd "take up the issue with the management ... it's "your" choice." Both the sets of quotes around IN and YOUR were included in the original.

I think the worst type of asshole is the one who thinks they're being decent, polite, and proper. Thankfully, my apartment complex is managed by a handful of decent people, not a property management company, and so I simply showed the manager the note, and told her that I planned to keep my vehicle outside of my aparment, thanks very much. Unless, with a smile, I asked, would you like me to get a parking permit for a space for it? She laughed and said, of course, that it was quite all right where it was.

I've still never actually spoken to the oh-so-neighborly new lady, but I keep parking my bike-car outside, at the bottom of the stairs, and have found no new nasty notes, so I think she got the message.

Unrelated note from the editor On April first, Verizon's going to give me a new phone, and I'm in all likelihood going to get an Lg enV, which as previously mentioned features an integrated two-megapixel digicam, so that I can actually add photos to your reading pleasure. Stay, you know. Tuned.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Riding bikes in the Pacific Northwest is just awesome.

There, I said it.

I started, you see, with the desire to talk about the various Pet Peeves of the Day that've been building up in my head here, but I think I'll take on the positive side this time.

I've never lived in California or Florida or somewhere else that's pretty much always warm and sunny, but I rather have the theory that I'd get bored of it quickly. People say it's always rainy here, but, it's just not. Sure, few days go by that meteorologists can call “clear.” But, wow, when the sun does come out, everyone runs outside to go and play. It's totally Peter Pan. And, like children so famously do, we're great at of pretending it's a lot warmer than it actually is. I had a brief conversation with a customer yesterday who absolutely embodies this: He had on shorts and sandals. And wool socks, plus a fairly heavy Columbia Sportswear jacket.

I'm thinking of this on Friday night, as I'm silently rolling back home from the the One Heart Cafe in downtown Tacoma, thinking of just how early everything around here shuts down. What, it's Friday evening at ten, T-town, and you're already closed? “It's not so much that everyone goes to bed early,” said Stephanie to me, “it's just that everyone's so lazy.” Downtown's Pacific Avenue gives way to industrial-gateway Puyallup, past the diners and cheapo motels (who stays there, anyhow?), past the Amtrak station, over the eighty-year old bridge, and around the corner to pitch-black twentieth. A nighttime freight train crew works the tracks, their engine's low diesel rumbling temporarily drowning out all other sound, their flashlights and my bike's headlamp the only break in the dark. It's still dry as I roll through Fife to the brand-new Interurban trail segment, but a film of clouds blocks out the stars. It'll rain tonight.

A day off at last, and I resolved earlier to ride up to downtown Seattle, to hang out a bit at its iconic Pike Place Market, including paying a visit to what I'd now call double-oh-three-oh-one – never mind the James Bond reference, it's the original Starbucks Coffee shop in the Market. It's a fun place, and I wish I had a camera-phone to show you some of the silly factor: it's as much a tourist attraction as coffee shop. “Hi! I'm calling you from The first Starbucks ever!” shouts the lady beside me into her phone. Shows just how much people value their lattes – the same people, I suppose, who nearly broke down into tears to thank teh SBUX for being open, serving those lattes at ten o'clock at night on Thanksgiving.

But that's not the point. The point is just how much you really see on a bicycle, the way that you are neither car nor pedestrian. Nowhere you'd want to be is off-limits, you don't have to do anything to switch from "getting there" to "being there". Along the Sound, when Mount Rainier pops into view around a corner like some kind of cartoon mountain, improbably imposing and bright, the constant undulations of Marine View drive show me just how awesome of a machine the human body really is.

I think people miss out on this. But as I stand up on the pedals around another soft corner, accelerating up a rolling little hill, I smile in spite of everything, anything, else that might be happening all around me. Not bad for human-powered, is it? It took me about two hours to ride from Milton to downtown Seattle, as opposed to a car taking perhaps forty minutes. But, really, slinging along the wide, straight Interstate at sixty-five miles an hour, what do you really see, let alone experience? And, then, let's pretend that instead of leaving at ten thirty in the morning, we left at eight. Do you enjoy the traffic? Does the congestion make your day the way that riding makes mine? Sure, I'd be slower riding if I had to get to work and carry, say a change of clothes and shoes, but you'd be slower, too, in all that gridlock. Then you'd have to get off of the freeway, navigate messy downtown traffic, find a parking space, pay for parking. If you got gas, I hope you didn't find one of the area gas stations that's recently pulled out a 4 to put in front of the price. Okay, for diesel, but, still, I saw $4.19 today. Wow.

So, my point here is that doing all of this on the bicycle turns what might be a series of unconnected encounters in a day out, Seward Park and Pike Place in Seattle, the One Heart and Point Defiance in Tacoma, and everything in between, is one unbroken string of experience. Conclusion: This is Life. Don't miss out on it while you have the chance.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Two Unrelated Pictures, with Stories:

My bike wasn't shifting chainrings very well. Since transfering my old parts to my new frame, the problem persisted. It wasn't so bad, but the shifting was, shall we say, muddy?

You might call it that.

I don't know if you can actually tell how thick the muck is here, but since I can't remember the last time I actually took my chainrings off to clean them, and ride in all sortsa Cascadian conditions, well, here's the result. Also, one thing SRAM got right with its design is its crankbolts: rather than a bolt threading into a little round nut, with a little notch in it to hold the sucker steady as you tighten it, you have a two-bolt system, with a 6mm hollow outer bolt threading into a 5mm inner bolt that you tighen against the outer one from behind. The result is a system that can't back itself out. I'm guessing this is SRAM's mountain bike heritage at work.

Last year I backed out one of my Campagnolo crankbolts somewhere along my ride. While nothing terrible happens immediately if you loose one of five, it definitely needed replacing, and the OEM Campy part cost something like seven dollars, plus two for the washer thingee that keeps it in place. Not a huge expense, but, come on. Nine dollars for a bolt and a washer? These parts were almost literally worth their weight in gold.

So, thanks, SRAM, for making a decent system. If the new Red shifters can manage chainring shifts with a little more speed and less lever travel, as they presume, I'll be even happier. Of course, I'll have to score some Red shifters to figure that one out...

Here is a quarter. Did you ever notice that "Twenty-Five Cents" appears nowhere in either word or symbol on these things? Just the little lettering on the bottom that says, "Quarter Dollar." If you know neither English nor math, well, best of luck.

Anyway, I'd like you to notice two things about this quarter. Number one, it is fairly shiny, though clearly it's suffered a bit of abuse as of late. Second, it's from nineteen sixty-five. That year itself is fairly unremarkable -- there were a lot of 1965 quarters minted, because of a quirk relating from the switch from silver to base-metal coins in the previous year. Nevermind that. The point is that I found this quarter in the road when my Aunt Cathy called. This is remarkable because I don't have an Aunt Cathy.

The phone call went something like this: I answer the phone, and the woman on the line asks, "Where are you?"

"I'm sorry?" I say, "What?"

"Where are you?" she asks again.

"Um, who's this?"

"It's your Aunt Cathy!" says Aunt Cathy, dumbfounded.

Clearly this Portland area code had no intention of calling some dude on a bike in Tacoma, but as I tell her she's got the wrong number, I spotted George over there in the parking lot. It's just kind of weird thinking about the age of this chunk of copper and nickel, what it's been through. It's from my parents' generation, I mean. Most of you will probably say, who cares? And, you're right, the answer is, not many people. But when I imagine just how different the world of 1965 was from the one of today, when I consider all of the things George here, has seen and done, I don't know, it just makes me pause and reflect for a moment.

I guess these folks care about this kind of thing. But a dollar bill doesn't really last very long -- eighteen months, on average -- which is one of the reasons I'm an advocate of dollar coins, which is another part of our cultural inertia. If George the One Dollar Bill has been around for a year, I can get my head around it. Quarter George turns forty-three this year.

Chris says he can't ride more than five minutes without listening to music. The silence would drive him crazy. Me, I have this kind of thing to occupy my mind with.

I am not sure that it is an improvement.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Day: In a Roundabout Way
(Contemplating Cultural Inertia)

For such a young country, America has an interesting amount of cultural inertia. Tradition seems a powerful force in many older societies: things stay the same because they have always been that way. Americans seem to carry on with what they are doing, because it's what we are doing right now. Is it our nation's individualistic bent that keeps us in our ways? Our relative geographic and cultural separation from the Rest of the World?

I mean, at some point before My Time, they tried to integrate some of the metric system into the US, and all we managed to get was two-liter soda bottles. This, of course, only serves to make things more confusing. Now we need to not only mind our P's and Q's, but also sort out just how many ounces are in a liter (without looking, it's 33.8, if I remember correctly.), and whether a gallon being "about" four liters is close enough for the operation in question. Not very helpful, is it?

Lately, I've noticed quite a few roundabouts cropping up in new suburban neighborhoods and strip malls around here. Roundabouts are a staple of European traffic control, but are relatively rare in the United States.

Now, the ones at the Weyerhauser corporate headquarters are fairly standard "modern" affairs, with a large circle that forces one to slow, but still carry a bit of speed, and vehicles entering the circle are directed to yield to those already in it. It's a tense moment as I approach the thing at speed on my bicycle, crossing my fingers that oncoming cars will actually obey those directions. Since there's little reason to go through Weyerhauser if you haven't already been there, most of these folks have seen the things before, and do fairly well. Plenty, though, still have no idea what the fuck's going on and proceed to barrel into the thing as if everyone else has a stopsign. On the other hand, they might come to a complete stop at the entrance to the circle, you know, just in case.

I'm trying to imagine, then, what was going on in the minds of the designers of the strip-mall complex called "The Crossings," which contains my employer. One of the main entrances to the thing is controlled by a roundabout. Ish. Sort of thing. (I'll see if I can't get a picture for you here shortly. --ed.) It goes like this: There are four ways into the circle. Of course, they run straight into the thing, which is a recipe for distaster in the first place, so the designers decided to "fix" the problem by installing stop-signs at three of the four entrances of the roundabout. Only the street side doesn't have one.

Wait a minute. Stop signs? Isn't the whole point of a roundabout that you don't have to stop? How is this different from just creating a regular intersection, and posting a sign saying "caution: incoming traffic does not stop," like they do every other stupid strip mall? I guess they thought of this, too, because the island in the middle of the roundabout, while fairly large, is "soft" except for a largeish planter in the deadcenter. That is to say, while it's raised from the road, the sides of the curblike concrete are sloped gently. The net effect is that, if one drives over the roundabout, instead of going you know, roundabout it, you're impeded less than you'd be by one of those godsforsaken speed humps they've been throwing down on the road like so many fast-food wrappers. Four out of five Giant Pickup Trucks and SUV's agree: it's better to just go straight on through the thing.

Oh, also, this kinda thing completely screws you up if you happen to be, say, a pedestrian trying to navigate the parking lot from one store to another. There are no crosswalks anywhere near the giant waste of space that is the roundabout section, and though there are sidewalks, complete with ADA-approved little ramps, they feed right into the little section where everyone's trying to sort out what the heck to do. Your best bet is to try to dash across the lane to the island, use it like a pedestrian refuge, and then dash across the next couple of lanes, but you'd just better hope that the planter doesn't block the view of the Giant SUV that's decided to go over-not-around, as described above.

Wait, though, wait!

Why would you ever WALK across a parking lot?

You could just get back in your car, and drive.

What was I thinking?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Not a Shutterbug, and, Gadget Envy:

I've never been a big fan of cameras. Sure, all shy kids go through a phase of hating their picture taken, and yours truly is no exception. But I'm talking about taking pictures, not being in them, and in that sense I'm only just feeling interested in doing it at all.

Pictures destroy memories.

At the least, pictures distill memories. Instead of having a vivid, multimedia (wow! Buzzword like it's 1995! I'll get to that later.) recollection of an experience, all I get is that one frozen, crystallized image of What Was. Also, pausing Real Life to Take a Picture quickly becomes wearing. Some say that the images are catalytic, that in seeing a single image of a place and a time, their sequence of memories is kick-started. If it works for you, I suppose.

When I went to Europe (for the first time) this summer, I tried to take my little digicam along, since it was likely this would be the only time in my life I'd see most of these cities. In two days of twenty, though, my memory card had broken, and I felt liberated.

This is so with bike riding, too: especially now with spring peeking its head around the corner, there are countless images I see while Out There that I'd love to snap a pic of, but I don't feel so excited about stopping the entire ride just to take a shot. I don't like fumbling about with a camera, either: with bothering to take the thing with me, to need to protect it from the elements, make sure it's charged, that whole deal.

Enter the mobile phone that is also a camera. I think I might get one soon. Oh, sure, I had a camera on my cell-phone twice before, and it was sort of a “gee whiz, this is cool” thing. Most recently it was on one of those Motorazr (“Razor”) deals that had become so ubiquitous, until the sucker got stolen in a moment of my inattention. I discussed that phone's virtues, or lack thereof, here, but be warned, there's also a potentitally politically charged bit in that post. But that camera was fairly low-resolution, and nearly impossible to use effectively. The shutter delay was prodigious, and the angle of the digital viewfinder with the handset open was almost useless. It was a toy, nothing more.

But now we've got stuff like the new LG enV (do they mean for you to say it out, “envy?” Wikipedia says yes), which, due to the a beautiful hand-me-down courtesy of Moore's law, boasts a two megapixel camera, the same as my old Canon point-and-shoot, and you can hold and view the thing like a normal camera.

What do I want to do with a thing like this? Well, take pictures, I suppose. Mostly, honestly, it is for you, dear reader. While I've no interest in running a blog that's one of those frat-collages of all of the cool stuff I've done, there are all sorts of images of the beautiful Pacific Northwest that I'd love to share with you. If you haven't been there, you haven't seen it, right? Heck, I've been kicking around the Puget Sound for almost two years, and I didn't know if you took that left out of Wilkeson, that you got to the seriously impressive Wilkeson Elementary historic building, and then to idyllic sunset lake. I mean, heck, it's about two miles out of town. Can I move there?

So, while I'm not going to go whole hog and get an iPhone (beautiful things, those, but then you are roped into a data plan), I'm either going to snag one of those enV's, or try to rope myself into something like an iTouch. Erm, iPod touch. Or whatever you call it. Curse you, Apple, for making the device that is (almost) I want, but not letting me have it.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

It's funny, really. The way this thing works is something like the way that many of the apparently simple things I wasn't able to accomplish went: a fairly small bump in the road, but one that I've got to build up a little speed going to get myself over. But I'm right up against it, and somehow I can't sort out how to go backwards enough to then go forward.

Backwards to go forward.

And here we are.

The part some of you might be wondering is echoed in the last anon. reply I got to my previous post: what's up with Yours Truly and the two-wheeled world?

Well, not too much. Have I been training? Yeah, sure. The miles are down a bit, the intensity is up a fair bit, we're well on the road to fitness. The hours have suffered a bit more than I'd like from a busy work schedule, but that's only made me recover more, which shows me just how much base you can build when you throw a few twenty-five hour weeks together.

But racing? No, not yet. Perhaps next weekend. I'll admit that for the moment I don't feel terribly inspired about the whole thing. Some part of me, of course, wanted to just give up the ghost on the whole thing, but I can't do that. I remember back to that time when I was neither student nor bike racer. Plenty of it was good, and one or two dear readers are part of the reason, but to say I was without direction is an understatement. Okay, a big understatement.

There was nothing. Cycling is something. What's more, it's something that turns me from who I was, into more of whom I want to be. For that, it gets a lot of credit.

To sum up:

No team, no money, no racing yet.
Soon enough.