Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Making coffee to the most by taking on the roast

The “Everyday Cheapskate,” Mary Hunt, advised this week that the more you learn about coffee the less, you’ll spend. I went high-tech some years ago with Cuisinart’s Automatic Grind & Brew Thermal (tm). It makes great coffee and preserves it well by percolating directly into a stainless steel carafe. I get up early for a fresh-made cup and set the remainder at bed-side for my wife to enjoy as an eye-opener. She was the one who pointed out Hunt’s article to me, which suggested that roasting your own beans makes the brew “infinitely better tasting” at half the price. That is good, because after reading this, I immediately bought a $400 Swissmar Bravi and fired it up this weekend -- the distinctive, but not unpleasant, smell of roasted coffee fills my home as I write. (My daughter thought I'd been boiling down maple syrup.)

The Bravi manufacturer leaves nothing to chance. For example, in the coffee roaster’s product guide they begin by saying “Keep the instructions (sic) manual.” The Swissmar engineers then specify that their customers “always use exactly one-half pound (225 g)…no more, no less.”** The machine offers a variety of roasting levels to a maximum of “Espresso,” which “comes very close to the edge of ruin.” Taking no chances, I went far lower than that extreme roast my first time around!

The moment of truth will come tomorrow morning when I make coffee with my home-roasted beans (Sumatra Mandheling). It had better be good, because I figure that, given the $6 per pound savings in beans and assuming a production rate of 40 cups of coffee per pound, the payback period will be two years. If the brew gets a “boo,” that will seem like an eternity to a ‘caffiend’ like me.

*Coffee trees produce a red “cherry” that peels back to the core green-bean

**At Ubersite, which “capitalizes on random, chaotic, unpredictable, flexible, bizarre human behavior,” I found these humorous comments (censored) on whether one ought to bother weighing:

I'm too lazy to actually measure the coffee out, so I just dump some in and try to visually judge how much I'll need to brew a pot. Each day I stare while it's brewing, tingling with anticipation... "today it's going to be perfect." No matter what, I either get really strong goo, or light brown water. Wouldn't I be so much happier if I just measured?

The righteous way, and the path to true enlightenment, is to judge for yourself. As you hone your senses and your appreciation of the subtleties of coffee concentration increases, you will journey on a remarkable voyage of self discovery. You will see things that are invisible to the unenlightened eye. This will lead to a greater understanding of being. However, if you are fluctuating between brown water and syrupy goo, then I suggest you measure. You are a dingbat.

No. You will never achieve Zen-like coffee by measuring. The only way is trial and error. I know, I have achieved UberCoffee.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Quest against greenhouse gases takes on religious fervor

(For the record, I do not drive an SUV, my furnace is a high-efficiency gas burner, my windows are double-insulated and the attic was recently blown with ultra high r-value fill. In other words, please do not question my dedication to reduce fossil fuel use by any reasonable means. Furthermore, I enjoy hiking, biking, canoeing, ice and roller skating -- any outdoor activity that does not involve an engine. In other words, I am in favor of environmental protection.)

Tuesday night, at my brother-in-law's invitation, I listened to a lecture by a professional from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) who added fuel to the fire for reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The venue was the men's club for a local Methodist church. The talk was introduced with an appeal for environmental stewardship as a Christian mission. It began with an explanation of the science behind greenhouse gases. To be fair, the speaker suggested that without any carbon dioxide, we would likely be a bit chilled -- perhaps by 60 degrees Fahrenheit! Next we saw the usual graphics on global warming over the the past century and back to the Middle Ages (for example, see this site by Woods Hole Research Center (protecting the integrity of the global evironment). Several people then pitched in with comments about how Al Gore dramatized this in the movie "An Inconvenient Truth" by climbing up a ladder to the peak of temperature. (I am suspicious of politicians and Hollywood actors preaching science, so this film remains unscreened.) One fellow, a retired PhD scientist, had the temerity to speak up that the connection of carbon dioxide to global warming is not yet proven and that other causes, not manmade, could have far greater impact on temperature increases or decreases. Seeing others in the audience squirm uncomfortably and even make faces to indicate how crazy this was, I knew that the earth's fate was sealed -- we are soon to be cooked in an atmospheric stew of our own making. The speakers then broke the church members into small groups to select from a handout of action items some things they would pledge to do (see the MPCA's "What Can We Do"). I am thinking about buying a bunch of cloth bags to bring my groceries home (one of the items). I've already done most everything else on the list.

What worries me more than global warming itself is the intermingling of politics and religion with climatology, for example the demands of a group led by Reverend Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals and Nobel laureate Eric Chivian of Harvard to make changes in values, lifestyles and public policy to avert global warming. Cizik told a news conference that "...Evangelicals have a responsibility to be even more vigilant than others. We will not allow the Creation to be ... destroyed by human folly." An opposing view is offered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology atmospheric scientist Richard Lindzen -- a critic of California's proposed legislation against global warming: "It's kind of pathetic because we have almost no understanding of major changes in climate over hundreds of thousands and millions of years...we're forecasting climate when our success in explaining it is about zero." (Source: CBS Broadcasting .)

Seeing the recent California freeze play havoc with citrus must give that state's citizens pause in their rush to join the global-warming evangelists.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Mixing beers -- synergy of zymurgy?

This Sunday during the NFL playoffs, Guiness beer ran one of their ongoing television commercials featuring two eccentric, but (self-styled) "brilliant," zymurgists. Try this "z" word for a trivia question -- the last one in most dictionaries. It refers to those that study fermentation in brewing.

That brought to mind my experience last week at Granite City Brewery -- a midwestern USA restaurant that features handcrafted beers. Seeing my befuddled look at the overwhelming selection of suds, the waiter offered the suggestion that I go for a 50-50 blend of the paler ales (the stouter stuff like Guiness is too much for me).

Given my affinity for experimenting, I liked this idea of mixing beers. It worked out a lot better than the last time I tried something novel: Pouring cream into my mug of carbonated beverage. That mixture succeeded for entertainment value -- producing an effect like a lava lamp, but it tasted really bad. I do not recommend it.

Aside from the Guiness guys, who seem far too goofy (sampling too much?) to be as brilliant as they think, the fellow I'd bank on for blending drinks would be John Cornell. He co-authored what must be one of the more unusual scientific articles ever: "In Search of the Optimum Harvey Wallbanger Recipe via Mixture Experiment Techniques".

I've heard of beer cocktails such as the whisky-spiked boilermaker -- a variant being the "depth charge". However, it seems that the practice of mixing one beer with another is mainly for salvaging a botched brew. Thus, whereas blends of white wine, and to some extent reds, are the rage in California, the same phenomena remains to be seen for beers. I see a real opportunity here for some research by zymurgists. My advice is that they study the statistical methods promoted by Cornell and made easy by Stat-Ease software, training and consulting. I volunteer to be on the sensory panel that rates the results.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Close encounters with improbable events ('Goofers') and implausible beliefs (Martians)

On my flight home yesterday from vacation in Arizona and New Mexico, a lady from Santa Fe asked about my screen saver showing photographic evidence from NASA that water flows freely on the surface of Mars. She told me that this is just a cover up by the US Government of Martians living under the surface of their planet. "The truth will come out soon," this New Mexican said, "They cannot suppress the bloggers who know that aliens really do exist." I suspect this woman scoffed at NASA's high resolution photos taken in July of the Face on Mars showing it to be only a geological mesa -- not an artificial monument by extraterrestials. The diehard believers in Martians, represented by a caller to the Art Bell "Coast to Coast" radio show, say that NASA dropped a nuclear bomb this structure to de-face it!

My trip last week featured a few other improbabilities. Its purpose was to see the Minnesota Gopher football team play in the Insight Bowl at Arizona State University's stadium in the Phoenix area. Us Minnesotans cheered wildly as our team went up by 31 points past the halfway point of the game. Sadly, the 'Goofers' blew their seemingly insurmountable lead and let the Red Raiders of Texas Tech win in overtime. This reportedly was the biggest comeback in a Division 1A bowl. Cursory research on the history of bowl games shows them going back over a century with accelerating frequency in recent years -- perhaps a few thousand games in all. I suppose I should feel lucky to see this unlikely event, but what really pleases me is that the coach got fired immediately afterwards.

The other unusual event experienced by me and my traveling companions was a record 16 inch snowfall in Albuquerque where I'd booked our flights to save on airfare. Fortunately the weather cleared just in time for takeoff. En route to the airport we stopped at Meteor Crater where NASA astronauts train for extraterrestial missions. Some people, like my fellow traveler from Santa Fe, believe that this was where the NASA perpetrated the hoax of man traveling to the moon. After seeing the Minnesota team implode at the Insight Bowl and then on my trip home almost getting stuck in over a foot of snow in supposedly sunny New Mexico, I am ready to believe that just about anything can happen. Come on NASA -- quit covering up: Bring on those eight-fingered aliens! By the way, how are they at handling oblate spheroids?

(Photo by H. P. Anderson)