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Coffee, One Year In.

I’ve been drinking coffee for a little over a year now. I’m self-aware enough to know how annoying it may be to hear a guy who has only been drinking coffee for a year say that most people are doing it wrong. I’m going to do it anyway. This shouldn’t be surprising though – the majority rules but is usually wrong. The largest beers by market share are terrible and I can’t imagine drinking them on purpose. People still give money to Comcast. Justin Bieber is a billionaire.

I’ve been pretty thorough this past year though. I’ve experimented extensively with nearly every method of brewing coffee, visited tons of roasters, and tweaked and tweaked. Like most crafts, a lot of what the experts say absolutely matters doesn’t end up making a difference to me. A lot of it turns out to be really important. The work is in teasing out the fluff and introducing more rigor into process. Everything else is subjective. Coffee can get wine-ishly snooty in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable. Obviously drink what you like. But with even just a bit more effort you can drink coffee that is more than just a tool. If you want to drink good coffee, here are the non-negotiables:

Your coffee should contain coffee. If you are taking milk or sugar or syrup, I wouldn’t bother with buying expensive coffee which you will just try to dilute away the flavor of anyway. I make exceptions for espresso based milk drinks since 1)the coffee is diluted with milk in place of water and 2)the milk has an additional role for adding texture to the drink. Never sugar.

**Edit: I don’t have any evidence to back it up, but I suspect that most people developed the habit of adding things to their coffee because the coffee they were drinking when they started was unpalatable without it. If my only option was bitter, burnt coffee, I would probably add some cream/milk to it too to try to mute the grossness. Good coffee doesn’t require this.

Grind your own beans, fresh. With a burr grinder, not a blade. Seriously, this matters. You can find suitable burr grinders relatively inexpensively. Blade grinders produce an inconsistent grind which makes extraction inconsistent and doesn’t allow you to control for the different grind sizes required for different brewing methods. Pre-ground grains go stale quickly since oxidation speeds up, CO2 levels are depleted, and volatile oils and flavor compounds become contaminated or absorbed by moisture in the air since they are water-soluble.

Don’t bother with Starbucks. Pretty standard for the coffee snob to shun Starbucks, and I tried to keep an open mind. But honestly, how can people drink this? I suppose if you are ordering their sugary flavored drinks that have a coffee flavor you can detect if you squint hard enough, then fine. That isn’t coffee so I have no opinion (other than why?). But their actual coffee is burnt. Even their medium roast leaves my mouth tasting like I smoked a cigar for the rest of the day. Over-roasting is a dumb trick you use when 1)you want to ensure consistency or 2)your coffee isn’t fresh. Kind of how like a Big Mac in Arkansas tastes like a Big Mac in Oregon. The easiest way to ensure that Starbucks tastes like Starbucks is to optimize for char, since that isn’t a flavor that will easily fade with time or environmental factors.

Control your brew. Here are the variables that absolutely matter: Water to coffee ratio (I think I’ve settled at 1:16 in most cases), water temperature, grind size, brew time. (The coffee and roast obviously matter immensely too, but I’m not including that here since those aren’t things you control at brew time). Most coffee-making methods are trade offs for which of these variables are easiest to control. One of the few coffee brewing methods I didn’t pursue was the standard automatic coffee maker since so few of these are controllable.

DO NOT BUY A KEURIG. Coffee brewed on a Keurig could be fine. But the company took a decidedly evil turn with their 2.0 machine when they started including DRM on their pods. You know, the same sort of protection they used to put on your CDs to prevent copying that worked out so well? The result is that only their approved, expensive pods will work on your machine. All others are rejected. 1)Yes, I know there are workarounds for this. None that I would be happy to have to do every day.

The other thing they did was to remove support for your own refillable, reusable pods. This makes quite a bit of sense when you consider how big of a rip off the pods are in a first place. You end up paying $80-$90/lb for coffee when you buy pods. This is insane. You can buy amazing coffee for $15-$20/lb if you are buying beans. No wonder they want to lock you in with what you are allowed to brew on your own machine. It’s worked out well for razors and razor blades.

The sad thing is that the 2.0 actually seems to be a pretty capable machine. It appears that brewing information like temperature, time, and volume are encoded on the pod lid, so there is clearly a decent pid in that thing. I could be persuaded if  1)There was firmware that let you get at those settings and 2)You could use your own grounds. Neither of these things are true, nor will they be because Keurig is evil.

So those are the bare minimum. Here are some additional observations from this last year.

Balanced is Boring. I can’t think of a single memorable blend that I’ve had this past year. This was partly self-fulfilling since the more unremarkable blends I tried, the more I stuck to single origins. Of course great blends are a thing that exist, and maybe it is just because I’m new to all of this, but at this point I don’t really want a balanced, neutral cup. Single malt scotch is more fun for this reason – I want  a cup that is distinctive in it’s characteristics as determined by the process and environment it was produced in. I want to enjoy lemony sweetness from Arabic coffee from the Yirgacheffe valley in Ethiopia. I want to tease out the acidity and variety that grows through Kenya’s rich volcanic soils.

It’s funny – to me coffee used to be a flavor used to describe how other things taste. The more I’ve gotten into this, the more I’ve realized that describing coffee as a flavor is about as useful as saying something tastes like ice cream.

Step off, French Press.I won’t go through the advantages/disadvantages of every method I explored but I will comment on my favorite, the Aeropress. This beats the pants off the French Press. With the Aeropress you can brew with nearly an espresso grind, which allows for shorter brew times, less bitter/off flavor extraction, a bigger range of water temperatures, less sediment, and easier cleanup.

The French Press is fine. People swear by it. But it’s a pain to cleanup, you have to use a larger grind, you still get grounds in your teeth, and your brewing time is longer as required by your grind. If I’m choosing a full immersion brew method, I go with the Aeropress every time. Larger volume brews are harder with the Aeropress than a big French Press2)This is what my 6 cup Chemex is for, but really I think that may be the only advantage I see. Lots of people claim that the paper filter of the Aeropress is filtering out too many of the oils that the French Press does not, resulting in a less full-bodied cup3)Of course, others cite this as an advantage.. I’m sure the filter does absorb some, but in my experience 1)the effect has been negligible and 2)you still can clearly see oil in the resulting cup that passes through the filter.

My second favorite brew method is probably doing a pour over. This is more time-consuming than the Aeropress, and coffee prepared this way will be different than an Aeropressed cup (some coffees lend themselves better towards one preparation than another). If I have the time though, I enjoy the ritual of making coffee this way.

Your worse options are going to be the ones that continuously apply heat, like percolators, or the hot plate the coffee sits on all day at the diner. These almost certainly lead to over-extraction and a bitter, unpleasant cup.

Anyway, I’m just scratching the surface here. You can take this as far as you want. Or you can take it even just a little further than bitter burnt coffee that you have to cut with sugar and cream. I think you will be pleased.

 

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1. Yes, I know there are workarounds for this. None that I would be happy to have to do every day.
2. This is what my 6 cup Chemex is for
3. Of course, others cite this as an advantage.

Losing Your Way

I don’t expect it surprised many to get confirmation this week that America does in fact torture suspects of terrorism. The post 9/11 pattern has been clear for some time now – the end is defeating “terror”, the means don’t matter. To this end the alternative tragedy to people getting killed in a terrorist attack is America continually becoming less so.

The Patriot Act passed with a single dissenting voice in the Senate, signing away unprecedented liberty in the name of security. Our government has since continued to spy on their own citizens, initiate programs of mass surveillance, subvert cryptography standards, and compromise the integrity of American businesses, all done behind closed doors in secretive courts.

We’ve involved ourselves in wars that have killed an order of magnitude more Americans than 9/11 itself did. We torture terror suspects and call it “enhanced interrogation” despite it involving things that I don’t even want to publish here. None of it matters because we are fighting terror.

Elected officials bald face lie to their electorate.

Appointed officials perjure congress with impunity.

No one is held accountable for this. No one will be held accountable for this.

It’s hard to even discuss these things publicly because partisanship chokes reason and patriotism beats restraint. Under the guise of “protecting our freedom” nearly anything has become permissible. This has mostly just become a marketing expression that signifies “see, it’s for FREEDOM!”, or is parroted by corporations and people alike to signify what a good dude they are. This isn’t a red or blue thing, in case you are trying to decide where to add the tally. I want nothing to do with that. This is about human rights.

And since I’m dangerously close to touching the third rail, let’s clarify:

  • You can denounce violence in our government without denouncing America.
  • You can call out police brutality and question their use of lethal force without hating cops.
  • You can value your civil liberties without having something to hide.

More troubling to me though is how ardently swaths of my personal network have defended the most Machiavellian shades of current events. Friends who are justifying war crimes, condoning torture, shrugging at gross abuses of power, saluting the deaths of unarmed black men. America is in many ways steeped in violence and lawlessness, so I shouldn’t be surprised when it trickles down.

I know, I know – log off bro, and I usually do. I’m not one to sit back and just point out stupidity, but sometime it’s just relentless. Sometimes it’s soaked in racism. Sometimes it’s tribal politicking that stands for nothing more than the inverse of the other guy. And it’s almost always missing the point.

Bitcoin is Broken

There are plenty of neckbeards who will tell you differently, but you should consider what incentives they have in place. I know many people who have plenty of wealth tied up in Bitcoin, and even know people who have become millionaires at the hand of Bitcoin and/or other cryptocurrencies. Good for them. Many of them are technologists who took on considerable risk because they believed in this particular version of the future. But they are pot committed at this point, and I wouldn’t expect them to say much more than don’t worry about it nothing to see here when confronted with some of Bitcoin’s most troubling weaknesses.

I won’t bury the lede here: Bitcoin is broken largely because mining centralization has threatened the key tenants of Bitcoin – to be both trustless and decentralized.

But first, a little history. In 2008 a person or group of people or organization published a whitepaper and reference implementation of the Bitcoin protocol under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. People toyed with virtual currency implementations previously, but Satoshi’s implementation was the first that could provide a currency that was completely decentralized, lacking the lynchpin of trust. This is significant. It is the invention of a monetary system that can stand on it’s own without the meddling of incorruptible folks like bankers and politicians. Whereas traditional currency balances are maintained on centralized servers owned by banks and governments, Bitcoin’s ledger is entirely public and owned by everyone. The protocol enforces consensus and prevents cheating.

So how does it work ? Here is where you probably get insulted if you understand Bitcoin because I am going to gloss over tons of details, but hopefully if cryptocurrencies are alien talk to you this will be a high enough level overview to get you started. But first, some terminology:

Transaction: A transfer of ownership of a coin, or fraction of a coin. e.g., Alice sends 5.2 Bitcoins to Bob.

Block: A group of transactions.

Blockchain: The distributed public ledger that serves as the database, consisting of a chain of blocks that has been growing since the very first block created, known as the genesis block. You can trace any bitcoin’s ownership all the way back to its creation by following the transaction history in the blocks in the blockchain.

When someone running a Bitcoin client initiates a transaction, it broadcasts it to all other bitcoin clients. These transactions get bundled until the next block is created. But generating a block has to be prohibitively difficult because if you could generate one whenever you wanted, you could easily publish a block that says you gave 1 Bitcoin to Bob, receive what you paid for, and then quickly publish a new block on a fork of the blockchain that pretends that you never sent the 1 Bitcoin to Bob, and instead sends it to Cindy. This is called double-spending, and preventing it is Bitcoin’s biggest innovation.

Enter Mining. To make it difficult to publish a block, the Bitcoin protocol enforces the rule that to create a block, you must first solve a mathematical puzzle. The only way to solve the puzzle is to input random guesses into an algorithm that produces hashes, and hope that the resulting hash satisfies a certain criteria. The difficulty of this puzzle resets every 2016 blocks (roughly two weeks) based on how many total guesses are being made on the network, with the goal of keeping block creation time at roughly 1 block every 10 minutes. If you can find an input that produces a hash that meets the criteria, you publish the block and the input you used to solve the puzzle with to the network. Each client on the network will then verify that your solution works, and that all the transactions in the block are valid (e.g., the sender has sufficient funds, the transactions match those that their client has collected, etc). Once a client sees that the block has been solved, they will give up work on it and start working to create the next block.

To incentivize people to participate, miners are given a reward if their computer is the one that solved the puzzle first. This reward started at 50 Bitcoins and halves every 4 years. That means it is currently at 25, will be at 12.5 in 2017, 6.25 in 2021, etc, with the total supply of Bitcoins eventually ending up at roughly 21 million.

Working together. So we’ve seen that mining is crucial to securing Bitcoin because it makes creating blocks prohibitively difficult, controls the rate of coin creation, provides a means of transaction validation, and incentivizes people to secure the network. But what a miner really wants is that block reward. Initially, you could have success mining alone on a standard CPU. Shortly after, people realized they could get more hash/s using a GPU. Then it was programmable FPGAs that vastly outperformed GPUs. Now, companies are making custom silicon for the sole purpose of computing hashes, and it’s big business.

Sure you could mine by yourself, but the amount of hashpower on the network is so huge that your chance of solving a block is very small. Instead, miners join a mining pool to decrease their variance and receive more regular payouts. There are plenty of payment schemes, but they all work roughly like you would expect – everyone in the pool contributes their hashing power, and if the pool solves a block the reward is distributed proportionally to the amount of hashing you contributed.

So what’s the problem? In a picture, this:

51%

In June 2014, the mining pool GHash.IO grew to the point of receiving 51% of the entire Bitcoin network’s hashing power, which is significant because it means that it had control over the Bitcoin network. Here are just a few of the privileges having such power can afford you:

  • Double spending
  • Blocking transactions from any address you want
  • Ignoring block formation from anyone else, effectively bringing the Bitcoin network to a halt.

I remember reading the response of Bitcoin’s chief scientist, Gavin Andresen when this happened. He’s a smart guy, and I generally like him. But this response seemed disingenuous. The crux of his argument was that sure, a pool with 51% could double spend, or shut down the network all-together, but it is not in their economic interest to do so, and even if it was we could probably fix it somehow. Ignoring the fact that those are not the only attacks a pool with 51% could carry out 1) I have seen no such changes to the protocol to prevent these attacks and 2) It doesn’t take much imagination to invent a scenario in which they were incentivized to abuse their power. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. A mining pool takes out a massive short position on Bitcoin, flipping their economic incentives
  2. The mining pool itself is hacked by people with malicious intent.
  3. State based coercion

So I don’t take his response very seriously. As an ambassador and holder of Bitcoin he took it upon himself to quell panic, and it worked. But implicit in his message was assurance that we could trust GHash.IO to behave while simultaneously acknowledging an attack vector that was no longer theoretical. For their part, GHash.IO’s official response essentially amounted to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. If Bitcoin is no longer trustless, then Bitcoin is neither relevant nor interesting.

And the brokenness remains. The hash distribution currently looks a little better, but nothing has really changed. The state of mining remains vulnerable to pools amassing 51%. While 51% is the worst news, there are various other attacks that can be carried out with as little as 25% of the hashing power, which both Discuss Fish and GHash.IO have at the time of writing this.

Mining has become so consolidated that instead of a handful of nerds MacGyvering rigs in their basement, you have this:  

mining

There are tons of warehouses just like this one, mindlessly chugging away computing insane numbers of hashes per second, consuming enormous amounts of electricity. These calculations being performed are in-and-of themselves entirely useless, unless one of them happens to unlock the block reward. And even if a million mining facilities like the one above came online, the retargeting nature of the algorithm means that there will still be, on average, 1 block created every 10 minutes. The only advantage to insaneness like this is that it makes it that much harder for any one actor to amass enough hashing power to gain a meaningful percentage of the network 1)Current estimates are that a 51% attack could be achieved with just over a half of a billion dollars. Chump change for governments or large entities who see Bitcoin as a threat.. Pooled mining has made this point moot, however.

Burn it all down. Well, not yet. To my eyes, Bitcoin is in this weird spot. It currently has all the momentum, and VCs are dumping millions of dollars into startups based around this alternative economy. But you can appreciate the genius of Bitcoin while still thinking, “hmm, maybe there is a better way”. In fact, lots of people are exploring alternative consensus algorithms that are resistant to mining centralization and aren’t stupidly inefficient. I will talk more about some of these in a future post.

The Bitcoin protocol itself is innovating at a snail’s pace, and I get it. There is considerable value to protect and the developers tread lightly when it comes to adding features that could put that at risk, but I can’t help but feel that in terms of technology it’s getting left behind. A currency is a great place to start your experiment to see if the blockchain can be a secure store of value. It has largely worked. But limiting the blockchain to currency is unimaginative and selling it short. The most exciting things in this space are applications and features that are being built on top of blockchains to enable decentralized applications, autonomous corporations, and distributed asset exchanges. The blockchain as a currency is far less interesting than the blockchain as a platform, and that is hopefully where we are going.

Ultimately, I don’t want Bitcoin to fail because that would be bad for crypto in general. But if some serious concerns aren’t addressed, I ultimately hope it gets phased out, replaced by improved protocols. The incandescent was brilliant, but I hope you aren’t still using them in your home.

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1. Current estimates are that a 51% attack could be achieved with just over a half of a billion dollars. Chump change for governments or large entities who see Bitcoin as a threat.

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