Kopi Luwak

There are two types of people in the world: those who have experienced the spiritual transcendence of Kopi Luwak and those who have not. This afternoon, after years of anticipation, I finally crossed the threshold myself. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to drink nectar brewed from the ass of the civet cat, here’s your chance to find out.

Asian Palm Civet: the magical cat that looks like a rat (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

Yes, dear reader, you read that right. Somewhere in Indonesia, a hungry civet cat ate a bunch of coffee cherries, ushered them through its enzyme-rich digestive tract, and delivered the fermented beans via the unsavory vessel of its poop. Some fine soul picked out the beans, washed them—knock on wood—and dried them for sale.

Now this process might sound like the worst possible thing you could do to a coffee bean, but believe me there is something special about the civet. Civet musk, secreted from the animal’s perineal glands—its anus—is among the most valued fragrance agents used in the world’s finest perfumes. Similarly, the civet’s digestive juices work their magic on the beans, “making shorter peptides and more free amino acids.”  I don’t know what that means exactly, but as of this afternoon I know how it tastes.

After the consumption, digestion, defecation, and cleanification, and perhaps through a far more complex series of transactions, several small bags of unroasted Kopi Luwak beans made their way from Indonesia to my barista friend in Seoul, Sang Ho, proprietor of the excellent Cafe the Sól.

As a coffee connoisseur, I have dreamed of tasting Kopi Luwak for years. It was even on my bucket list. But as one of the most scarce and expensive coffees in the world, fetching up to $600/pound1, it’s just not something you run across every day. My attempts last year to try a cup at an upscale cafe in Kuala Lumpur were thwarted when the beans were out of stock. I certainly never expected to find Luwak in Seoul. So when Sang Ho gleefully showed me the beans a couple of weeks ago, my eyes grew large like saucers.

Then the waiting began. There is nothing like having a major life milestone in your sights and counting the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until fulfillment. I felt like this in the last weeks before my company was acquired after years of hard work and months of due diligence and negotiations. I felt like this after I’d filed my PhD dissertation, not knowing whether it would actually make it through the UC Berkeley bureaucracy without a hitch. I felt like this on my wedding day. I felt like this losing my virginity. The deal’s not closed until the check clears, as they say.

There is something very polarizing about the process of anticipation. The climax is either superb or superbly disappointing.

Eighteen days, two hours, and twenty-eight minutes after my first glimpse, it was my time. Seoul was cool, gray, and rainy this afternoon, weather fittingly reminiscent of Seattle where I discovered and developed my love of coffee.

My brain was in overdrive as I watched Sang Ho grind the beans into a metal cup. A whiff of the fresh grounds made my head spin. The scent was rich, dark, and earthy. I’d even go as far as to say I smelled a hint of musk. In my heightened sensory state, a well-disguised cup of Sanka might have elicited the same response. My arm hairs stood on end.

Sang Ho took his time preparing the individual drip cup. As he worked, he tried to set my expectations. Kopi Luwak, he explained, is all about scarcity. If my expectations for taste were too high, I would surely be disappointed. I fidgeted. He checked the water temperature with a thermometer. Just hurry up and pour the cup.

As we waited for the water to drip through the filter, we both took another good sniff. Powerful, heady stuff. I shivered. A minute later, a full cup of Kopi Luwak was sitting in front of me. I summoned willpower of Herculean proportions to take a picture before my first sip.

It is simply not possible to taste objectively when you are as worked up as I was at that moment. Half-excited to reach the Everest peak of coffee drinking, half-nervous that it would fall short of expectations, I gingerly raised the porcelain cup to my lips. The first sip was … as awkward as you might expect. “Hmm.” It was strong, dark, a touch sour, smooth and round in my mouth. Are those notes of prune? Walnut? I’ve never been good at explaining flavors. It was different, but I didn’t know how much of that difference was due to the thing being observed, and how much was the observer. I took another sip. “Hmm.” So much pressure!

I chatted with Sang Ho as I slowly sipped and tried to make sense of this coffee enigma in my mouth. When I’d finished half the cup, no closer to the truth, I asked for a hot water refill. The water cut the strength, but without altering the basic flavor. I carefully worked my way through another half cup, waiting between sips. No epiphanies. Simply frustrating. I could taste the flavor more clearly, but was still grappling to have something to take away from the experience.

Over the next few minutes, as my drink cooled, so did my anxiety about the experience. The tension in my shoulders loosened, my head became clear, and suddenly I enjoyed one of the most delicious mouthfuls of coffee in my ten years of coffee appreciation. And again. A wave of bliss washed over me. Apricot? Chocolate? Smoothness. Fireworks going off in my brain. Perhaps the caffeine was kicking in. It was heavenly. Small sips, delicately savoring the precious resource. Euphoria. Gently, slowly, until every last drop in the cup was all used up.

Six hours later, I can still taste the sweet tang of Kopi Luwak on my tongue. Like a symphony concert that leaves your ears ringing, my mouth is still ringing from this afternoon’s cup. My brain is still ringing.

If you’re a skeptic, you’re probably screaming “placebo effect!” Would a normal cup of coffee have elicited the same response given my state of mind? Perhaps. But does it even matter? It’s a rare and wonderful thing to experience the rush I had this afternoon, and I can honestly say my mind is blown. Heartfelt thanks to the civets, poo-pickers, bean-washers, middle-men, and most of all Sang Ho for making it happen. At long last!

  1. Note that this is a steal compared to Uchunari Grade 0 coffee which fetches up to £7,875/lb. Outrageous! []

Elva Minch

My Grandma Elva died on Sunday night at the age of 97.

Elva was my fun grandma. She had a hearing aid that beeped when you put your hand close to her ear, and she used to surprise kids with it. Thirty years later my friends from back then still remember that trick ear. She had a Round Tuit (“I’ll do it when I get a round tuit.”) and a B.S. Grinder and an embroidery hoop with “Bang Head Here” printed on it. Her knickknacks expressed her personal brand of humor and sentimental value. She had boyfriends and went dancing and jet-setted between South Dakota, Arizona, and California when she wasn’t busy traveling the world. She was cool.

Elva had style. She wore bright clothes and heels, got her hair permed, and had her nails done in all kinds of splendor. Her house was always clean, and she seemed to have a system for everything, from her crock pot to her Hot Shot which heated up a cup of water in a matter of seconds. She took pride in those systems, and evangelized them to whoever would listen.

My grandma was an adventurer. I was in middle school when Grandma took my mom to China for the trip of a lifetime. She taught me that the other side of the world was just a plane ride away. She gave me the travel bug and bought me plane tickets to Sweden so I could spend the summer of my eleventh birthday there with my best friend. Elva traveled well into her silver years with trips to Ireland and Israel, and even as a kid I remember thinking “Wow, this is a woman who is not letting old age slow her down!”

Grandma also had an independent, can-do attitude and saw the best in everything. For many years, even as her hearing and eyesight worsened, she stayed upbeat. I remember when she told us about her class for the blind, and how interesting and funny everything was, even though without hearing her loss of eyesight was a serious problem. She explored the problem and addressed it head-on. She aggressively adopted technology to help improve her life. Her house in Grass Valley was a study in workarounds, from special playing cards for the visually impaired and a bed-vibrating alarm clock for the hearing impaired to a magnifying projector and books on tape by subscription. And when I say it was a study in workarounds I mean that literally – my wife worked at one of the world’s leading product design firms and was so inspired that she turned it into a case study of how the elderly adapt. She loved to play cards, and in life she played the cards she was dealt.

My most precious memory of Grandma Elva was the last adventure she took me on, a road trip across South Dakota when I was in grad school. We visited her hometown of Wetonka which is now deserted and stopped by a lake outside of Aberdeen to see the migrating snow geese. We drove down to see the Corn Palace in Mitchell and then across the state to see the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Monument. One night it was snowing and I was driving slowly, looking for our motel after a big prime rib dinner. In an unfamiliar place and with poor visibility, I accidentally rolled through the town’s one red light and seconds later was pulled over by a cop. We put on our best, most innocent grandma/grandson faces and got off without even a warning.

Even as old age got the better of Elva, she maintained a positive outlook, curious about the journey ahead of her. And in her final weeks there were bits of levity. I was very lucky to be able to see her at Christmas. At first she thought I was her son Tom, and when my mom explained that it was her grandson she laughed “Oh! Well I’ll be…” and gave a big warm smile.

Elva lived a long and incredible life, through both world wars, the great depression, the cold war, the civil rights movement, women’s lib, as well as multiple waves of industrialization and globalization. She lived her life optimistically and to its fullest through the richest century in human history. Even in death she left this world in the best possible way: peacefully, courageously, and on her own terms. She’s an inspiration who will be sorely missed. Happy trails, Grandma.

Ian Bogost, Edward Tufte, and Gamejunk




When I had lunch with Ian Bogost a couple weeks ago in Seoul, he railed venomously against gamification, startups, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and pretty much anything with a pulse. Having never read any of his work, I charitably attributed his attitude to a raging case of jetlag. When I later read his scathing takedowns “Gamification is Bullshit” and “Shit Crayons”, I realized that he is even more cantankerous on a full night’s sleep. I subscribed to his RSS feed hoping something constructive would come down the pipe. Today I got my reward.

Ian’s latest post, “Notes on Loyalty”, is wonderful. He contrasts two types of interactions as a frequent flyer of Delta Airlines. In the negative interactions, the airline tries to placate or manipulate him by awarding loyalty points as meaningless, generic, and asymmetric gestures. In the positive example, the customer service representative understands his problem, helps him solve it, and thoughtfully reimburses him for the inconvenience.

During our lunch, Ian was vocal about things that he thought were unfair, dishonest, or otherwise in poor taste, but much less forthcoming on what he saw as “good”, and I appreciate that Loyalty contains such an example. The first thing that came to mind as I read is the old adage that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Writing incendiary posts overflowing with bile (intellectualized trolling?) might garner pageviews, but does little to convince people. Focusing on a positive example does wonders for persuasive power.

Loyalty‘s message made me think of information visualization guru Edward Tufte. Like Bogost, despite being a proponent of information visualization in general, Tufte spends tremendous effort railing against poorly-executed visualizations, and against Powerpoint in particular.

Tufte also advances his own principles of what makes for good visualizations. Among these, my favorite are the notions of chartjunk and data-ink as introduced in the 1983 classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

The interior decoration of graphics generates a lot of ink that does not tell the viewer anything new. The purpose of decoration varies — to make the graphic appear more scientific and precise, to enliven the display, to give the designer an opportunity to exercise artistic skills. Regardless of its cause, it is all non-data-ink or redundant data-ink, and it is often chartjunk.

Above all else show the data.

To make the principle concrete, Tufte proposes the data-ink ratio, which is the ratio of ink used to convey the information in a graphic to the total ink in the graphic. As an illustrative example, he conducts a sequential redesign of an information graphic in which ink is removed in steps until there are no more removals possible without eliminating data from the graphic:

A visualization redesign example from Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in which he successively removes ink from an original diagram on the left until all that is left is data ink on the right.

I wonder whether, at some level, Ian is trying to make a Tufte-esque point about game-like interactions in business systems, which is that user interactions which don’t contribute to the core purpose of the task – in this case, serving the customer – are wasteful at best and dishonest at worst. In the spirit of Tufte’s chartjunk, I wonder whether he would approve of the term gamejunk for systems interactions that distract from or obscure the underlying transactions. Or whether he would blast it for trivializing something that is complex and nuanced. Either way, I appreciate his sharp perspective.

The Ford Test

Anybody who reads this blog knows that I’m hungry for learning and inspiration and look for it in every direction. My friend Bill Ford has been a major source of inspiration over the past couple years. In addition to being my yoga teacher, he is also an opinionated and multi-talented designer and technologist, and you can see his fingerprints over all my work.

Recently, inspired in turn by Milton Glaser, Bill has proposed the following framework for design, which is to answer three simple questions:

  • Who am I talking to?
  • What do I want to say to them?
  • What do I want them to do as a result?

Applying these questions – which I’m now dubbing The Ford Test– to this blog as a whole, and to each of my posts in turn, I discovered (re-discovered?) that although I have plenty to say, I have no idea who I’m talking to, and no sense of how or whether the content is actionable in any meaningful way.

Remixed

After failing the test miserably, I decided to give it another thought. This isn’t necessarily what the blog is in its current form, but what it wants to be.

Who am I talking to?

You are a friend, friend in the making, or simply a like-minded explorer of the nooks and crannies of this globalized and increasingly techo-biased world. You’re fascinated by the micro and the macro alike.

What do I want to say to them?

I’m giving you a set of complete thoughts that dissect a system way too complex for me to properly understand. When weaved together, they form a larger, slowly congealing narrative. Underlying all these thoughts is a general theme is about getting better about whatever we do, as individuals, as a group, and as a society.

Life is too complex to figure much of anything out, but it’s possible to make powerful steps forward by making small observations, generalizing them, broadcasting them to a community, gathering feedback, and synthesizing. (Or, as Bill would call it, “flocking”)

What do I want them to do as a result?

Agree with me. Disagree with me. Point me at examples, counter-examples, related points of view, and tangents. Let’s solve this riddle together as a distributed army of Watsons that together form a mega-Holmes in a Voltron-like symbiosis. Are you feeling it?!

Reflected

With all that in mind, I need to get a lot better at engaging. Getting my thoughts out is only a small part of the feedback loop. To that point:

  • Does this outlook speak to you?
  • Should I focus tighter, and if so, where?
  • Do you have any suggestions for creating a healthy discussion here?

Please share your thoughts below – your feedback is crucial … and much appreciated!

Image courtesy of Fool-on-the-Hill at Flickr under Creative Commons License.