Thursday, March 18, 2010

Coffee questions

Coffee mania
Originally uploaded by yelalaily
Do you think the folks who first began to cultivate coffee had any idea what they were getting us into?

Coffee is so interwoven with Western and near-Eastern culture that its rightful place is as the flip side of wine: stimulating instead of sedating, steaming instead of cool, bitter rather than sweet, normally taken in the morning rather than the evening. Like wine it is normally found around food, at casual and formal occasions, often is accompanied by a ritual, but seems like a good idea anytime we feel like it. And the second helping is never as divine as the first.

Both encourage dependencies and in excess are clear vices. However, while the benefits of moderation in wine have been proved over and over (not least its anti-aging, anti-oxidative and letting-your-mother-know-what-you-really-think properties) the judgment on coffee is less clear cut.

A dear friend who – when she is not nursing patients – nurses a coffee habit of legendary proportions, once said that she could speak for five minutes and convince anyone that they should never again take another sip of coffee. This, she said, could be followed by another five minutes in which she could convince the same person that they should never let anything come between them and their two daily cups.

I'm not satisfied with this ambiguity though. Even more unsatisfying, something is awry with the way I make coffee these days. I (as usual) use a cone filter, ground espresso from the CoOp and have not noticeably changed the recipe – but it just is not tasting the same. Every morning tea is looking a little bit better, though I've been hesitating to trust it to get the job done. All this makes it imperative for me to know: cutting through the crap, is coffee good for you or is it bad for you?

But, as a deviation before I get in to that, I found a wonderful legend about coffee’s origins cultivation from National Geographic's Web site. It goes along these lines:

“Goats will eat anything. Just ask Kaldi the legendary Ethiopian goatherd. Kaldi, the story goes, noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He copped a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock.

“Witnessing Kaldi’s goatly gambol, a monk plucked berries for his brothers. That night they were uncannily alert to divine inspiration.”

Alright, back to the science. Here is what I found:

According to the National Coffee Association’s Coffee Science Source ( coffee seems to reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. There is some evidence that it can improve physical performance when exercising (types the girl who is meant to be training for a half marathon) and protects against heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver. Coffee’s fiber and antioxidants help keep our colons and DNA young.

The articles warning against coffee seem to be slightly more of the “paranoid wing-nut” variety. They mainly point out the dangers of adrenal exhaustion, psychological dependences and “dead caffeine” (as opposed to live caffeine in green tea – give me a break).

So . . . my coffee problem seems mainly to be that I need to invest in a better coffee maker!

Further reading:
Coffee as a Health Drink? Studies Find Some Benefits (August 15, 2006, NY Times)

Monday, March 8, 2010

An afternoon at the Opera

State Opera House
Originally uploaded by danielle512
Sunday afternoon I saw the State Opera's performance of Puccini's Turandot. The State Opera house is a lovely little building near the National Museum. It's not as sumptuous as the Paris Garnier or San Francisco War Memorial (I've not been to so many others), but it has a sincere prettiness that is immensely appealing. The chairs could be a bit more comfortable though. 

Czech people are serious about dressing up, so I did by best to turn up turned out: heeled leather boots, black sheath dress, fuzzy turtleneck sweater (more in the interests of warmth than style), a tailored tweed jacket, dangly earrings, eyeliner and, and, lipstick. The opera staff and audience members addressed me in Czech, which felt like a reward for my efforts. (One of my definitions of successful travel is being addressed in the local language.)

Upstairs in the hallways hung portraits of notable performers associated with the opera house. By far the best was a delicious picture of Marina Vyskvorkina. She is shown, full locks flowing, oozing with scarcely containable fabulousness. I look at this photograph and think, “How cool must it be to be her?”

The performance began dull enough, but improved as the death toll rose. The most enjoyable singers were the comical Ping, Pang and Pong. These over-wrought ministers flitted around the stage like over-plumed birds in multi-layered be-sequened, be-tasseled headdresses, coquettishly fluttering fans in their hands.

At least one audience member did tear up at the show-shopping aria Nessun Dorma (click here to listen to a recording). Equally touching, though, was the crowd who came. Many large family groups: everyone from grandma to toddling little boy.

During one of the intermissions, I snapped a shot of a father instructing his young daughter: on his knees, sharing points from the program to an attentive audience of one.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Volunteering for a better world: harnessing technology and willing citizens

(From this week's iSGTW)

By using the strengths of distributed computing technologies, both specialized researchers and citizens have the opportunity to participate in a new way of doing science.

We live in a time when nearly all information is available to nearly all people everywhere.

We are entering an age where all types of people can also contribute to many types of information. A school bus driver in rural Romania may be part of a biomedical research project. Or a banker in Los Angeles might moonlight as a collaborator in an astronomy project – classifying galaxies in her spare time.

This new movement in science, called “citizen science,” allows non-specialist volunteers to participate in global research. The projects are as diverse as backyard insect counts (the Firefly citizen science project), studies of how malaria develops and is transmitted ( or prime numbers searches (through PrimeGrid).

The marriage of distributed computing techniques with citizen science represents a potential revolution. It gives scientists access to more resources and makes “cybercitizens” participants in the research process. With a few mouse clicks and 20 minutes to spare a person can elect to aid scores of projects. They can aid as many or as few projects as they like, and their involvement does not damage the performance of their own computer.

Considering the average desktop is idle about 80% of the time, its spare computing cycles represent a large resource. After downloading the needed software, a computer’s spare analytical power is harvested to work on small pieces of a large problem that has been sent from the project’s server. Once completed, the results are sent back to the project. By sharing out large tasks to many computers a distributed “grid” of computers can reduce the time needed to solve complicated problems.

Where to Start?

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