Annals of commerce

Printer cartridges and safety razor blades, move over: this year’s Ramsey pricing award winner is the Nespresso coffee system…and these guys don’t even have the good grace to give you a break on the initial purchase that puts the tapeworm’s head in your wallet.

Making espresso-family drinks at home has always been something of a nuisance.  If you want a really nice cup of Giuseppe in this mode, you need to grind beans, fill a little cup with a porous bottom and attach it to a machine, wait while hot water is squooshed through it, and steam some milk  (with a nozzle on the same machine) if you aren’t taking it neat.  For the next cup, you knock the grounds out of the cup and start again…pretty much the same sequence you see at your neighborhood bar, but you don’t have the automatic grinder/tamper they have that makes the process quick and repeatable, nor the grounds bin with a rubber bar for knocking out the basket.  We had one of these machines for several years and didn’t use it much after a while, because it was just too much bother for one or two cups, and the jouer-avec entertainment faded quickly.

Now you can get a more automated espresso machine that represents real progress.  It holds a largish tank of water and a hopper of beans.  Push one button, and it grinds the beans, brews a cup, and empties the brewing basket.  To steam your milk, you still have to stick a nozzle into it and open a steam valve (but as my dad used to say, “what do you expect with a bowl of soup, a ham?”).  We have a Saeco that originally cost $300 as an impulse-purchased open-box item at Fry’s that has been trouble-free for four years, making about a thousand cups a year; this model costs $1200 now, but Amazon offers a DeLonghi with similar functionality for about $600.  Peet’s $13/lb Italian roast comes out to about 10c per serving for this system, plus 16c for a latte’s worth of milk.  As the cycle takes about 30-60 seconds and the machine is 1200w, maybe half a cent for electricity, less without the milk.

What I’m working up to is truly a wonder of modern enterprise. The corresponding Nespresso machine costs about $550 (these are all on-line prices) and you don’t pour beans into a hopper every twenty cups.   Instead, you drop a little aluminum “pod” into it for every one cup, close a lid, push a button, and voila! a cup of espresso.  The aluminum cup – I just dumped one out and weighed the contents -  contains 4g  of coffee that was ground heaven knows when and sealed in its little cup to age in a warehouse (g means grams, gentle reader; a gram is about 1/30 of an ounce).  These pods cost about $1 each on-line, though the sales clerk at Sur la Table, where I came upon this system today, told me that while they don’t sell them, they are available for $.55.   Even at the lower price, which I can’t find on the web, this coffee costs $66/lb, and no, you cannot use the machine with anything else; not someone else’s pods, and certainly not ground coffee.  Nestlé pods, pal; it’s a lifetime relationship.  That $500 machine is a down payment on a 400-900% tax on every cup of coffee you make with it: three cups a day and you pay for the machine again, or more, every year you own it. Next, a frying pan customized to work only with a single brand of eggs, yup.

What I can’t understand is how these geniuses were so dumb as to market a machine that uses tap water.  How hard could it be to design a sealed aluminum non-refillable $15 water pod, filled with one of several different gourmet waters matched to the coffee blends (the coffee pods come in about twenty different color-coded blends), like, say, Milano da rubinetto,  Pioggia pura romana da mattina, Nestlé’s own Poland Spring (in 3 elastic modulus grades) already in pods, Amazona prima colheita do verão, Flaque Boulevard St. Germain, Fiji-Dasani custom coffee blend (also approved for Mercedes engine cooling systems), Gelbschnee fondé puro (Nestlé’s local house brand), and so on.  People who will pay five to ten times extra for stale coffee grounds will certainly pay through the nose for water with a name on it.

Forget the flu-impregnated monogrammed hankies, the baby python, and the exploding cigars; imperfect as the Nespresso realization is so far, it’s still this year’s best gift idea for your worst enemy.  And you can do something nice for the folks who have had so much trouble understanding why every baby in the world shouldn’t drink formula, almost as good as breast milk for the child and so much nicer for the suits in Vevey – not to mention their determination to cover the world in empty plastic water bottles.

Jim DeMint is an Extremely Important Person

Jim DeMint thinks it’s so critical that you know how important he is that he doesn’t mind if a few thousand folks in Africa die over it.

So now South Carolina Republican Senator James DeMint has decided to shut down the Senate over the next three months unless he and his staff have personally reviewed any and all legislation.  DeMint announced that he will put a hold on all bills, which essentially will mean taking a week to overcome his obstructionism: even if all other 99 Senators support a non-controversial bill, because the Senate runs on unanimous consent, DeMint will require a cloture vote to consider the bill, which means 30 hours of debate, and then another cloture vote to allow debate on the bill, which means another 30 hours of debate.  That’s what a “hold” is: it’s a threat to make yourself a royal pain in the rear unless you get what you want, and DeMint is very good at that.  And now, being just a pain means defeating the legislation, because there is not much time in a lame-duck session.

In other words, Jim DeMint has decided to remind everyone in the country that he is an Extremely Important Person, and thus play to the rabid GOP base.  What he doesn’t want you to know is that his little hissy fit will have real consequences to real people.

Senator James DeMint (R-Romper Room)

Consider a bill like S.384, the Casey-Lugar Global Food Security Act, a piece of legislation that is close to my heart: I just got back from DC to lobby for it on behalf of the American Jewish World Service, and found that Congress probably won’t be able to take up the bill in the lame duck session because Jim DeMint has decided to remind people that he is an Extremely Important Person.  And so the bill will die. (To assist in bringing it up again in January, please consider contributing to AJWS’ efforts here: that’s my fundraising page, and the money raised there goes to food security efforts.).

By way of background, a recent United Nations study reports that more than 925 million people worldwide suffer from severe hunger and malnutrition. 

925 million starving people?  Shouldn’t we do something about that?  You don’t understand: Jim DeMint is an Extremely Important Person.

Casey-Lugar would (among other things) create an emergency fund to purchase food in countries where starvation is at its worst: as Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman observe in their recent spectacular book, Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, in many countries suffering from hunger, farmers have food but can’t get it to starving populations, and in any event, current US law forbids purchasing food on site, delaying distribution by several months and impoverishing developing country farmers.  Most importantly, Casey-Lugar would begin to shift US aid policy away from just giving food to people toward making the poor self-sufficient by allowing for US assistance to develop agricultural capacity in the Global South.  For example, as Thurow and Kilman show, Ethiopia has made great strides in recent years toward food security by creating an agricultural futures market that stabilizes agricultural prices, allowing farmers to make a profit but keeping prices at more affordable levels.  Casey-Lugar would enable more experiments of this kind, and authorize (although not appropriate) $7 billion in funding for it and for the emergency fund.  A good short backgrounder can be found here.

An agricultural futures market like the Chicago Board of Trade?  That’s hardly socialist.  Who could be against that?  Well, you see, you don’t understand: Jim DeMint is an Extremely Important Person. Casey-Lugar is not an earth-shattering piece of legislation: at this point, it doesn’t seem even to be all that controversial.  It even has two Republican co-sponsors in the Senate (Lugar — of course — and Susan Collins). It passed the Foreign Relations Committee — which DeMint sits on — unanimously.

Well, maybe Jim DeMint will see all of this, and will deign to allow the Senate to take up the bill.  Or maybe not.  After all, Congres still has to take up all 12 appropriations bills, which of course the Republicans could also filibuster.  And who knows how many other good, small bills will die because Jim DeMint wants you to know that he is an Extremely Important Person.

DeMint claims he is a Christian: I have no idea, but I take him at his word. Conceivably, hundreds of thousands of people in the Global South could die because of the failure to pass this pretty non-controversial bill.  Theoretically, aren’t Christians supposed to be against that?  Well, maybe so, but these people aren’t nearly as Extremely Important as is Jim DeMint.

How about this, Senator?  Every time you come into a room, a band will play Hail To The Chief.  That seems to be really what is interesting to you.  The rest of us would like to act like adults.  In the meantime, if you want to try to make sure that DeMint has as little influence as possible in the next Congress, you can drop a few dollars here.


Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates on the south coast of the Persian Gulf, is a small tribe (now numbering about 300,000) of pearl fishers and date-palm cultivators who found themselves, in 1966, living on top of a small-to-medium-sized lake of oil.  They arranged to have this oil pumped out and sold as quickly as possible and under the leadership of a heriditary sheikh invested the money around the world, largely in ports and luxury real estate and retailers, and locally, under the truly loony idea that if you build a city in one of the hottest and driest places in the world, and air condition everything in sight (including Metro platforms), ‘they’ will come to do things they could perfectly well do in one of thousands of habitable places.   For a while, they did, including foreign workers amounting to six times the number of citizens, but the bloom is off an economy built on its own growth and no actual local source of primary value.  Some of the internal contradictions of the whole idea are beginning to bite, especially the expectations of western tourists for amusements deeply distasteful to the official views of reactionary Arab/Islamic men (like prostitutes, nightclubs, uncensored internet access, and social intercourse among unmarried men and women), and the pretzels people have to twist themselves into to do ordinary business, like lending money and investing, within the Islamic proscription of interest.

The local real estate investments, fruits of the most creative and vacuously directed engineering skills of people from everywhere in the world except the UAE,  comprise some of the most ridiculous follies on the planet, including the world’s tallest building, super-luxury hotels amid zero real tourism destinations, the famous indoor ski slope, and a set of artificial islands prepositioned to go under water with the Maldives when sea levels rise.  Meanwhile, it is impossible to find a painting, song, novel, play, theorem, or any other enduring artifact of Dubai (or UAE, as far as I can tell) society – as opposed to stuff bought or rented from foreigners, like the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.  A colleague with extended experience in the UAE described its fundamental post-oil philosophy as “Is there a problem?  Well then, lets go shopping!” and they do, at retail for chotchkes like the odd Maybach and more grandly at Harvard and Singapore for a school of government.  In a wonderful irony, a newly-salient conceptual import is the constitution of the city of Mahagonny, where the only crime was being broke, and in a completely unsurprising development, the bubble is breaking and UAE neighbor Abu Dhabi, which still has lots of oil, is trying not be dragged down as the ship founders.

I predict Dubai will be one of the most sought-after post-apocalyptic film locations in the world; there will be no competitor as a site of fantasy ruins, with lots of reliable sunshine.  Meanwhile, a much smaller bubble, also built on the desires of people with no real class, lots of money, and a need to display both qualities, seems to be breaking at the same time.  I’ve been waiting for this one for almost two years.

Photo-op cont.

I suggested in last week’s post on the dumb fly-over of New York Harbor that the desired photo, and lots like it, could be better made on a computer than with actual airplanes burning thousands of pounds of fossil fuel. And indeed, Will Sherman provides these nice examples of AF1 in various places including one it can’t actually go (h/t: a reader). No-one was frightened and only the teensiest bit of carbon dioxide was released in making these photos.

A reader wrote to say that operations like the NY outing are sometimes used to give pilots flight hours. Perhaps – but doing it over New York with no public warning sounds like someone is scheduling flying time a few pounds short of mental takeoff thrust.

A Photo-Op??

Let me get this straight: flying an Air Force One around lower Manhattan with a fighter plane chasing it, which scared the pants off the locals (I wonder why?) was a photo session, to get a picture of the airplane near the Statue of Liberty?

Never mind the idiot who thought it would be a good idea not to tell anyone about this (rather than inviting everyone out to watch and have an ice cream cone in Battery Park); how many dozens of thousands of dollars were spent flying actual airplanes around instead of neatly Photoshopping a picture of the airplane into a picture of New York Harbor?

Look at the picture in Kevin’s post. The plane has really nice sharp edges. Nothing from the background has to overlap it. The shadow of the aircraft doesn’t show (though that would be a simple matter to add). There’s no hair, foliage, or fuzz to mess with. You could make this precious photograph with scissors and paper!

If we still had golden fleece awards, this exercise would get one with a cherry on top, a sterling example of waste and abuse in government occasioned by men wanting to play with big noisy toys instead of a quiet computer. And no, the photoshopped montage would not be a fraud; no-one is presenting the old one as evidence that Air Force One really did fly by Mt. Rushmore on such and such a day.

Zero tolerance and sanity

Six years ago, an assistant principal in Arizona took leave of his senses and ordered a strip search of Samantha Redding, a thirteen-year-old girl, for Advil (ibuprofen). The victim’s suit against the school district is now headed for arguments in the Supreme Court in April.

Everything about this story is deeply nuts. First, Advil??!! This medicine has no psychoactive properties, period; no-one takes it for fun. And the toxic dose is enormous (unlike Tylenol), so there’s vanishingly small risk of any kind from Advils sneaking into schools. The only excuse for worrying about ibuprofen in this context is the lexicographic accident that drug in English has two meanings. Second, zero-tolerance? This is from the get-go a deliberate, intentional abandonment of common sense and judgment, a mindless, deaf-dumb-and-blind policy for politicians and petty bureaucrats to hide behind, created by the worst kind of cowardly lawyers enabled by bloody-shirt-waving Mayberry ideologues (and an excuse, as in this case, to abuse and humiliate children). My daughter the schoolteacher is forbidden to hug or even touch her kids, because it’s easier for bureaucrats to make stupid rules than to do their jobs. People, including kids, need to be touched and hugged; think this inhumane rule has avoided even a single case of real abuse?

The way the Arizona case should have unfolded is simple: the school board and the superintendent should have had a blinding epiphany that they had unleashed a monster, and fixed it immediately. Instead of zero tolerance for aspirins and Advil and plastic knives, the district should have zero tolerance for absolutists and authoritarian monomaniacs. The assistant principal, and everyone else at the school that didn’t have the sense to say “No! are you crazy?”, were obviously unsuited to have anything to do with kids, and should have been fired. And the supe should have gone personally to Redding’s house, with a nice batch of flowers, to apologize.

Instead, it just got worse and worse. With no apology or admission of error from the district, Redding’s family sued. The district decided to waste thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting the case in court, and the issue shifted to one of unreasonable searches rather than administrative malfeasance. Courts are totally the wrong place to straighten out educational incompetence, and litigation is ill-suited to guide public managers about how to do their jobs better.

It has now been six years, which raises another question: how on God’s green earth can it require six years to try and appeal a case this simple? Some things just take a long time and there’s nothing for it, like growing a tree and raising a child. But some things take a long time because the work keeps getting put on a shelf instead of being done, and that’s what happens in the courts; when judges grant endless delays and adjournments to be “fair” to litigants, the queues grow and unfairness multiplies. It’s flatly, radiantly, unfair for a citizen to wait six years for a resolution of an issue like this.

All in all, a perfect storm of serial failure, grownups behaving atrociously because a lawyer with not enough real work to do told the school district to embark on a policy of doing bad things B,C,D… because bad thing A might happen otherwise.

Quondam mechanics

In defense of watch nerds.

I don’t doubt that many buyers of expensive mechanical watches are merely signaling their wealth and ostensible good taste. But there’s more to it, for some. An appreciation of craftsmanship—literally, the skill and dedication of the watchmaker. And a more direct connection between form and function, which engages the user.

I’m a mechanical engineer, and a hi-fi nerd. [warning: tech jargon ahead]

Update: Edifying reader response after the jump

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