Coffee Heresy

You can make great coffee at home or work. Lots of people have written about how to do it. Maybe later, I’ll tell you how I do it. But for now, here’s a great article. If you want, you can skip the geeky back story in that article and jump straight to the six principles. They are simple. They are solid. You are welcome.

Let me make an observation, though: The equipment required to make a great cup of coffee is relatively inexpensive. You’re going to need a conical burr grinder, but you can get a Hario Mini Mill for \$29 (and I’ve seen them for less). You have several choices for brewing equipment, but the main options are less than \$25. You’ll also need a way to heat water, but you probably have one of those already.

But once you get into it, there’s a world of stuff to learn about growing regions and farms, about roasting, and about your personal preferences. I haven’t scratched the surface of most of this stuff on my own coffee journey. I just know when it tastes good, and I appreciate that it is an agricultural product handled with love and care by my favorite local roaster.

You cannot make great espresso at home or work. At least, you can’t without a lot more time, effort, and money than you are probably willing to invest. In terms of money, they used to say that a good espresso machine would set you back at least \$2000. I’ve been watching these guys since their Kickstarter went live, and from everything I hear they make an amazing machine, breaking new ground in “inexpensive” home espresso, for \$800.1

Once you get a decent machine, you’re going to need some training. Seriously, if you want to do this right, you need barista training, and you need to get it from someone good. And then you’re going to have to practice, a lot. But even then, you’re probably not going to pull a perfect shot first thing every morning. How do I know? Because I regularly see great baristas who have pulled thousands of shots throw them away when they don’t come out right. And I’ve been served lousy espresso by baristas that ought to know better. You have to get the grind dialed in, the portafilter tamped just so, and then you have to get the temperature, pressure, and timing right. And then, for many espresso drinks you have to learn to properly steam milk, and keep things clean in the process.

I like espresso drinks. My favorite drink is the latte, but a good espresso shot can also be divine. But take my advice: Learn to make good coffee at home, and find a great local coffee shop to make your espresso drinks. Treat yourself, and think of all the time and money you are saving. You can buy me a latte to thank me.

Here comes the heresy: If, even after reading my advice, you absolutely must have espresso at home or work, Nespresso is probably the way to go. You can get a Nespresso machine for under \$200. The capsules aren’t cheap, but neither are they particularly dear (about \$0.65 each). They’ll give you a consistent, espresso-like experience, no skill or training required. I used them at work in Ireland, because there was a machine at the office.2 Nespresso is served in Michelin-starred restaurants and sometimes beats espresso in taste tests. I think those taste tests are flawed (and there are others that contradict them), but I think they make my point, nevertheless. The likelihood that you are going to make better home espresso than a Nespresso machine without a substantial investment of time, effort, and money is nil. I will add, though, that I have never used their milk frothing contraption; you’re on your own, there.


Anyway, that’s my advice: Learn to make great coffee at home and work. Buy your espresso drinks from your friendly neighborhood barista and leave a tip. If you won’t take that advice, though, then Nespresso might be your ticket.

  1. One of the guys who started the company was a VT engineering graduate student, so I have followed the project from the start. Despite everything I say here, I sortof wish I had gotten one of their machines for \$200 or \$300 during the Kickstarter. Back in those halcyon days they thought their machine would retail for \$400. 

  2. I did, in fact, bring a grinder and an Aeropress to Ireland with us to make the great coffee described at the beginning of this post. But I kept and used those at home. 

A Stroll Through Irish Literature

I want to blog again, but I can’t seem to find the hook, or the time. Nevertheless, here is a post.

Starting in the Spring, while we were still in Ireland, I read some Irish literature. I started with Strumpet City because it was Dublin’s One City One Book selection for 2013. Then I proceeded to read some Yeats (a couple of collections of poetry) and to reread some Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, which I totally loved when I encountered in high school, and something else which now escapes me). And then I read Dubliners, by James Joyce, which is quite accessible and quite enjoyable, before being cajoled into reading Ulysses.1 And I may have read some other things that I have now forgotten.

But the last thing that I read in this recent stroll through Irish literature was TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. It was long listed (but not short listed) for the Booker Prize this year, and it was wonderful. I’ve already added Let the Great World Spin to my short list.2

In any case, I have said remarkably little, to almost anyone, about the situation with Northern Ireland.3 Which is probably appropriate, given how little I really know about this centuries-old struggle. Nevertheless, I thought this passage from TransAtlantic was full of insight. I’m quoting Colum McCann here, but these are thoughts that he puts in the head of former US Senator George J. Mitchell (a character in the novel, parts of which are historical), around the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. McCann interviewed Mitchell extensively in writing the novel, I understand, but obviously we can’t hold Mitchell responsible for McCann’s depictions of his thoughts.

[The British] are a tough, intransigent lot, though they have softened a good deal in the past year or so. Embarrassed by what they have done for centuries in Ireland. Ready to leave. To hightail it out of there. They would wipe their hands clean in an instant, if only they didn’t have to do it in front of the world. They seem stunned that Northern Ireland somehow exists. How did they possibly ever believe that the country could have been good for them? What it all came down to was pride. Pride in the rise, and pride in the fall. They want to be able to leave with a measure of dignity. Tally-ho. Ta-ra. Voyeurs to their own experience. Living at an angle to the moment. And the Irish, down south, with almost the exact opposite dilemma. Embarrassed by the fact that it was taken away. Centuries of desire. Like the longing for a married woman. And now suddenly she is there, within your grasp, and you’re not quite sure whether you want her at all. Second thoughts. Other dowries. The mildew in the room where the past is stored. The Unionists, the Nationalists, the Loyalists, the Republicans, the Planters, the Gaels. Their endless gallery of themselves. Room after room. Painting after painting. Men on tall horses. Flags into battle. Sieges and riverbanks. The alphabet soup of the terrorists.

  1. Yes. I read Ulysses. I’m glad that I did, but it was hard, and I wouldn’t exactly recommend it. It contains moments of absolute brilliance. But it requires either the patience for careful study, which I do not possess, or the willingness to plow on even when one feels completely adrift having completely lost sight of the plot, which I, apparently, do possess. 

  2. I have two lists. A long list of things that I would like to read but may never get around to. And a short list, resembling a plan, of things that I reasonably expect to read in the next few months. 

  3. I can’t believe that I’m about to explain this, but a bafflingly large proportion of otherwise educated Americans seem unaware of even these basic facts. The island of Ireland, to the West of the island of Great Britain, has been divided into 32 counties for some centuries (apparently since shortly after the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1100s). Of those 32 counties, 26 form the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation which has existed since 1922. (The Republic of Ireland was preceded by the Irish Republic, a revolutionary state that declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1919.) Northern Ireland consists of 6 counties (in the North, naturally) that remain part of the United Kingdom and was created when Ireland was partitioned by an act of the British parliament in 1921. This partitioning of Ireland remains contentious to this day, but disputes have largely remained peaceful since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, granting Northern Ireland some measure of self-governance and self-determination. 

The Burrito Project

When I came to Dublin, I had the curious idea that I was going to review all the burrito places in the city, posting my reviews here.1 I kept some notes for a while, but I finally gave up. I gave up mostly because, while I write this blog primarily for me, I decided that posting Dublin burrito reviews would have an other-than-me audience of zero. And even I wouldn’t be that interested, besides the conclusion of where I found the best burritos, which certainly didn’t require a whole series of blog posts.

It has been interesting, though. The number of burrito vendors in Dublin is exploding, with at least three places opening in City Centre since I arrived. And the quality is going up, too: Of the three places I’ll mention below as the best, only one was open last summer.

A few tasting notes and then I’ll tell you what I like best:

  • At most places, I tried (on different days) both the chicken and the pork. Chicken is easy to cook, but unless you get the seasonings right turns out bland. Pork, on the other hand, is hard to cook right, and a lot of places wind up with a sloppy wet mess that would be more at home in an elementary school cafeteria line.

  • I had a lot of trouble finding salsas that I like. I like the medium corn salsa at Chipotle, but I’ll also settle for a medium tomato-based salsa. At a surprising number of places here, the medium salsa is a salsa verde. I’m not a fan of the style. But, it turns out, the Irish seem to like their food fairly mildly spiced, so I can usually get by with the hot salsa here.

  • Lots of places here (even some of the good places) overstuff their burritos. To me, the beauty of the burrito is partly in being a self-contained food item. If it falls apart, then it fails that test.

So, here it is. The best burritos in Dublin, by my reckoning:

  • Tuzo. Opened a few months ago on Dawson Street and has since become my most frequent burrito. The ingredients here always taste super fresh, bursting with flavor. My only complaint is that sometimes the burritos are overfilled and fall apart.

  • Pablo Picante. I’ve only ever been to the Baggot Street location. Not sure how long they’ve been around, but they certainly predate me. Good burritos, and the best, most interesting (in my opinion) salsa in Dublin in their “Smokie.”

  • Tolteca. Just opened on Suffolk Street, where I discovered them, but apparently they had a location on Upper Baggot Street already. The closest thing I’ve found to a Chipotle clone in Ireland, down to free refills on fountain drinks (unheard of in Europe, though the cups here are tiny by American standards) and white and brown rice choices (only recently rolled out at Chipotle). They have good chips and a kids’ menu, too.

Honorable mention goes to:

  • Burritos and Blues. I was unimpressed the first couple of times that I went here, but I wound up having a couple excellent pork burritos. (I still can’t really recommend the chicken, though.) Also, their black beans are refried, which is … odd.

  • Boojum. Went here about three times, and the burritos weren’t bad. In fact, I had a chicken burrito that was outstanding, though overstuffed. But it’s a long trek from my office, and twice I’ve made the walk only to have to wait for them because they were late opening.

  1. I guess I wanted to be the Full Custom Gospel BBQ of Dublin Burritos. Maybe if I had done it and stuck with it, I could have become the only full-time burrito editor in Europe

Disrupting Higher Education

Last Tuesday, I attended an international symposium on online higher education titled “Disrupting Higher Education.” It was somewhat random that I was even invited, but I had a wonderful time. I would say that five of the seven main presentations were excellent and memorable. In my world, that is unbelievably good.

The strangest thing about the symposium, particularly given the topic, is that it has no web page that I can find. It was claimed, though, that the presentations would be posted online and available as a podcast. I’ll follow up by email this week and, if I find anything, I’ll update this post. In the meantime, here’s a press release about the event, which does contain a link to the Provost of Trinity College’s1 prepared remarks2.

In this blog post, though, I want to mention two particular sources of inspiration to me from the day:

  1. Simon Bates gave a talk titled “Flipping the Classroom, Flipping the Culture.” I’ve known about active learning for a long time, and I’ve tried to incorporate it into my teaching to some extent. But I’ve always felt that I could and should do more. This talk gave me a model that I’m going to try the next time I teach undergraduates.3 This Prezi appears to be an earlier version of the same talk.4

  2. Audrey Watters, of the blog Hack Education, gave a talk titled “Who’s Education Data Is It?” It was an interesting talk, with lots of food for thought, and she put some of her thoughts on the subject in a Storify here. I enjoyed her talk, and I’m really glad that I found her blog, which distills a large amount of news and information into something that I can actually track. Watters also made a Storify which is currently probably the best available record of the symposium.

    But the moment of inspiration actually came in the panel at the end of the day. Someone asked about the relevance of the app/music/ebook marketplace to higher education. Some panelists riffed on iTunesU and then started down a tangent about tools and platforms. And then Watters said: “The web is the platform.” I’ve heard this a million times, so it shouldn’t have been profound. But for years I’ve been guilty of sticking my course content into our Sakai-based LMS because it’s so easy. I need to do better and liberate that content onto the web. And the next time I teach a course, I will try to do so.

  1. For my American readers, the Provost of Trinity College is the top university official, like the president of most American universities. He is also elected by the faculty for a fixed term, completely unlike the president of most American universities. 

  2. His remarks were quite interesting to me, also, but I didn’t count them in the seven. 

  3. My next teaching assignment will probably be a graduate course. I can’t figure out how to make this model work in a graduate course. Still thinking about that. 

  4. I usually dislike Prezi. But this one was pretty well done, I thought. Another one during the day (which backed a good talk, nonetheless) practically gave me motion sickness. 

Apple Maps

I have been something of a defender of Apple Maps. I think they’ve gotten a bit of a bad rap. The user interface is nice and the road data mostly seems okay. The point of interest data seems lacking, but I expect that it will improve over time.

Plus, I agree with Dr. Drang: Apple played hardball with Google and wound up getting most of what they wanted, in the form of a standalone Google Maps app, anyway.

But, I tried using the Apple Maps app a few times while traveling around rural Ireland last week, and searching is awful. To give the best example: On our way to County Cork, we stopped at the Rock of Cashel. The bathrooms there were being renovated—it is low season, to say the least. So, when we finished our visit, we wanted to find a restroom before getting back on the road. Near the parking lot, I saw a discarded McDonald’s cup. As an American, I instinctively associate McDonald’s with clean(ish) restrooms on road trips. And, while there aren’t many McDonald’s in Ireland, I thought maybe there was one in Cashel.

So, I pull out my phone, open the Apple Maps app, and type McDonald’s in the search box. And the first result? A McDonald’s in Cashel, Ontario, Canada, 3200 miles away. No, I am not kidding. This is not a point of interest problem. This is a search problem.

As it turns out, there is a McDonald’s in Cashel, Ireland, but Google Maps didn’t find it, either. At least Google Maps suggested a few in Ireland, though, including the next closest location, about 12 miles away (but not on our route). As for us, we stopped at a gas station, where the bathrooms were cleaner than you’ll find in most American gas stations, anyway.


When I started writing about my sabbatical in Dublin, I thought that I would blog (often!) about how things were different here in Europe/Ireland than they are in the U.S. I quickly realized, though, that many of the differences that I saw were more from living in a city (as contrasted with Blacksburg) than from living in another country. Yet, to my experience, there’s not a U.S. city of similar size (metro population of 1.8 million) that is anywhere near as compact as Dublin. My experiences of New York City give a somewhat similar feel of density, especially Brooklyn and Queens. (Dublin is not a vertical city—I hear the geology is wrong—so it is incomparable with Manhattan.) But NYC has a metro population of 18.9 million, more than ten times the size.

I pointed this out to a colleague, though, and he said (paraphrasing): “Your perception is also skewed by the fact that you are on sabbatical. I live in Boston. I did a sabbatical in Minneapolis one year. By every measure, Boston is a better city. And yet, my memories of Minneapolis—working at 80% capacity, spending more time with my family, …” At that point he trailed off and audibly sighed.

So, perhaps I see the world here through rose colored glasses. I am in love with this city, though. And we certainly see differences between the U.S. and Ireland, especially having now traveled a bit in more rural Ireland, too, but they are complex and nuanced and hard to blog about without stereotyping or overgeneralizing.

No, this isn’t really the reason that I haven’t posted more often. I won’t make excuses or promises, but I have a measurable goal that I think is achievable. So, I expect to do better.