Breville BES920XL, Part 4.

This is my third review, but now with a better grinder and no pressurized portafilter:

  1. – Shopping
  2. – Just Arrived
  3. – Down the learning curve

And now I have a new grinder. With the new grinder, coffee is ground fine enough that it visibly clumps. With the non-pressurized basket, it reaches 9 bars of pressure, right in the correct range. Espresso shots now look like espresso shots, about the right volume and similarity to mouse tails. I’m going to have to learn how dial in a shot, if I drink the espresso straight, it’s a bit sour at the moment.

Mornings, I’ve been making Vegan Lattes. Only soy so far can steam with any similarity to dairy milk. On the other hand, if you really don’t like bubbles, it’s a feature, not a defect! It’s almost a flat white!

Since there is enough crema to notice, I’ve notice that if I pour the milk right, the crema layer doesn’t break and stays intact until the top. I’ve watched the video on how to do fancy pouring, but I don’t have enough microfoam to work with.

One of the features of the BES920XL is the double boiler. There are a few time metrics that baristas mention on YouTube:

  • Time the espresso sits after finishing pulling it (The espresso’s flavor and odor is volatile and evaporates quickly)
  • Time the milk spends after leaving the fridge (else the milk warms up)
  • Time from when the shot starts until you start drinking your coffee (else you get cold coffee)

A double boiler brings helps shrink these times, but you have to multitask and watch several things at once. I’ve started steaming as soon as I hit the 2 cup button.

In the evenings, I make “Foggy Bombay”, which is steamed milk & decaf chai tea.  The Mrs prefers Foggy Bombays.

The toddler prefers to drink steamed milk straight from the pitcher right after it get steamed. I was sort of surprised, but it makes sense, steamed milk is not far off body temperature and that’s what babies and toddlers are used to.

The espresso at the office got worse. I finally noticed that the espresso pods at the office have stale coffee and are pulling over extracted espresso by last quarter of the pull. Sigh. But, on the plus side, creamer fixes everything. I can’t detect any defects in espresso con panna.

Next, I will learn how to use all those programmable buttons to adjust temperature and other fine tunings.

Second Impressions of Breville BES920XL

My new grinder is on order, so I’ve been using the pressurized baskets. I can get a reliable drinkable shot, but it doesn’t much resemble the one the La Marzocco one at La Mano makes.  On average 2 shots is stronger than my usual 1 teaspoon of instant & 1 shot at the office.

I’ve made steamed milk with almond, coconut and soy milk. So far, soy milk performs the best. I’m pretty sure this is a protein thing– only soy milk has the high protein levels you find in cows milk. I don’t have a suitable wet rag for the steam wand. I’ve been trying to use wet paper towel, but that hurts the fingers most of the time.

The toddler likes drinking the steamed milk. For the afternoons and evenings, I’ve been making decaf chai with steamed milk.

The instructions report a 15 minute warm up time. I have no idea what they are talking about. That must be the warm up time in the dead of winter in a cold house. In DC in the summer, it warms up in what seems like 5 minutes.

The top warms up dramatically, but so far I haven’t achieved warm coffee cups. I’m wondering if this is a silly sales man story. “Buy this $$$ machine, and hey it will warm your cups if you set them on top!” But now that the tanks are insulated and the machine, sensibly, shuts off after an hour or two, your cups don’t warm up. I happen to have some metal espresso cups, so I’m going to see if they warm up faster than the ceramic ones.

So far, I would say the machine is performing at expectations. One the new grinder gets here, I’m optimistic it will surpass expectations

First Impressions BES920XL Breville Espresso Machine

So I followed the instructions and fired it up with help from my 2.5 year old assistant barrista.

Incompatible Grinder
This must be why Breville sells an espresso maker with a built in grinder, at least they can tune that machine to work well with that built in grinder. But that isn’t the machine I bought.

My Capresso Infinity grinder can’t grind coffee fine enough for this machine, Seattle Coffee’s online description agrees. I have no idea how my older Gaggia Baby was doing it, I suspect that when it was creating coffee with crema, it was because the portafilter basket holes were clogged & it was creating an accidental pressurized basked. Pressurized baskets have only 1 tiny hole open, which compensates for coarse grind or tamping problems. Or the Gaggia’s portafiliter was secretly a pressurized system all along– don’t know.

With what I thought was a fine grind, when suitably tamped, trimmed, etc, results in a shot that pulls in ~ 10 seconds, always less than 1 or 2 atmospheres, sort of like a rushed pour over. A single shot overflowed the cup. The taste was not as bad as the stale coffee, but sure wasn’t like visiting the local espresso shop.

Stale Coffee
With the pressurized basket you can get crema from ground, not obviously stale coffee. But the espresso machine brings out the stale flavor notes. The previous day I’d made drinkable drip coffee with this ground coffee & running it through the espresso machine made it undrinkable.

I haven’t tried my good coffee with the pressurized portafilter, but I will report back tomorrow.

Steamed Milk
The milk steamer does fine. I had almond milk, which I didn’t have great hopes for, it creates a small amount of foam. The proper vegan espresso milk is Soy, I’m guessing a *high protein* soy, but I haven’t confirmed. Anyhow, I was fresh out, so I’ll have to report back later.

“Razor Trimmer”
This struck me as sort of a training device, so you can learn how not to overfill the portafilter basket. I doubt it makes a detectable difference unless it is grossly under or over dosed.

Anyhow, until I get the grind right, no point in working with the other tunable settings, like temperature and so on.

Espresso Machine Shopping: The Decision

(Note, I haven’t received my new machine yet, so this isn’t a review yet!)

I used to own a Baby Gaggia. I probably didn’t descale it at the right intervals, and even if I did, it appears that semi-automatic machines in general last about 4 or so years.  This machine worked for several years before it started to leak around the brew head (youtube says this is probably a bad gasket, they wear out). Also, flow dropped to about nothing. It returned after descaling, but then about a week later, no flow again. Forums suggest that this might have been bits of aluminum from the descaling clogging up the downstream holes and pipes.  The internet also says, of the three materials for tanks, aluminum, brass and stainless steel, aluminum corrodes the worst and fastest and is the most difficult to descale without damaging the tank.

Aluminum also accumulates in the brain and is associated with dementia. I’ve already eliminated all other sources of aluminum from my diet and environment, so I can’t really justify repairing this machine if it’s going to be putting aluminum flakes into my coffee. I don’t think I want to repair and sell it either. So with a heavy heart, it’s going to landfill.

What to get instead?

I got a bit of analysis paralysis. In order of complexity, here is what I considered:

Caffeine pills. I got a jar in the cupboard. I really only use them in emergencies.
Instant coffee. Reminds me of Europe, otherwise, not much to report.
Greek coffee. This is cooked in a pan on the stove. Never tried it, seems like it would be gritty.
French press. Too strong. My press is a bit broke and now I have try to filter it or deal with great gobs of grit.
Moka pot. Too strong. I don’t like the powder at the bottom of the cup.
Espresso from a cheap machine (those $50 ones). I used one like this for years. I think it was mostly ruining perfectly good coffee.
Another $400 espresso machine. These give you three or four variables to work with- beans, grind, tamp, pull time and that is about it. You get little feed back about if it is too hot, too cold, over pressure or what have you. These only have one year warranty and seem to have a lot of problems as if corners are being universally cut and the machines are trying to do something their parts are made for.
A step above that, which is something like a Breville BES920XL, which is what I ultimately chose, ~$1200 after discounts.
After that is the superautomatics that grind and brew coffee and steam milk on the press of one button. That’s boring. And those machines break down a lot as witnessed by the large number of superautomatics that are on sale as refurbished.

At the time, I was reading the Self Illusion, a book that reminds me that our brain is less unified than it seems. Parts of our brains make decisions and the conscious, internal monologue part *rationalizes* it, comes up with reasons to support a decision made by the non-rational part of the brain.

My toddler *loves* the coffee machine, especially the numerous steps to make coffee. He is going to really like the BES920XL. So maybe that was the clincher for my unconscious decider.

People are repairing the machine. This means if it breaks, repair costs are low enough to warrant getting it fixed. One website implied a repair of a semiautomatic could run ballpark $150-$200, or about 1/2 to 1/4 the price of a new machine. So if it’s similar for a BES920XL, then in 3 or 5 years, I’ll just pay $200, get it repaired and it will run for another 5 years.
The machine comes with 2 years warranty. Amex extends that by a year. I ultimately bought it from Seattle Coffee, which also extends the warranty by a year, so I’m sort of double warrantied for the 3rd year.

Who to Buy From

I considered Macy’s, William Sonoma, Amazon, and Seattle Coffee. Macy’s offers Plenti points, which would have been worth around $30, but I couldn’t get a 10% discount. William Sonoma offered a 10% discount if I joined the mailing list.

Amazon offers via 3rd parties and one of them, iDrinkCoffee, was like $300 under the rest. It turns out that iDrinkCoffee is in Canada, which normally is fine, but that means me, an American, would have to pay around $80 in import taxes, $30 in currency conversion fees for Amex, (or $0 with Discover, but Discover doesn’t extend warranties.) Speaking of warranty, machines bought in Canada sometimes (always?) have to be serviced in Canada. And it turns out that electricity is a bit different in the US vs Canada, so the machine might actually be different– I have no idea about that tho. In short, I decided I couldn’t go with Canada.

I also decided to not get a damaged box unit from Amazon– it was $100s less, but was either no warranty or a few month warranty. So that was out.

When 1/5 of the reviews are people discussing breakdowns and repairs (I’m talking about all coffee machines, not just Breville) it follows we should take warranties serious.

I finally chose Seattle Coffee.  I tried to get the 10% discount, but instead got a 5% discount. It felt sort of like haggling with a machine. Seattle Coffee also offered a lot of freebies, like $100 gift card, free shipping, and so on.  Another deciding factor was the Seattle Coffee youtube vids– go watch them, they are obligatory for any modern coffee shopper– this isn’t a bottle of caffeine pills your buying here, there are a bunch of knowledge points you need to pick and use a machine.

I’ll be financing it with Amex. I happen to have just opened an Amex account, so I get free credit for 1 year. I wanted to create a sinking fund to pay it off, but the bank is offering 0.01% interest. That isn’t 1 percent, that is 1 percent of 1 percent interest.  So a sinking fund would get me about 12c. Other banks offer 1%, whoo! Fortunately the stockmarket tanked, so maybe I’ll buy $1200 of stocks.

Anyhow, it should arrive in a few days, so I’ll have an excuse to blog again.

Small Donor Charity Strategies

No Charities
As an individual, no donation I make makes a noticeable difference, ie. it’s all rounding errors.

But, if everyone though so, no one would donate and the small donor part of charities funding would evaporate and that would make a difference.

One Charity
Economies of scale and transaction costs favor giving one big chunk of money to one charity, this minimizes the amount of money wasted on administration and marketing.

If charity == uncoordinated wealth redistribution, then it doesn’t matter who gets the money (but by this reasoning, it doesn’t matter how many recipients either)

“Selfish” charities (giving only to your own community, alma matter, family, kids, or donating to the public library or museum that you use) favors giving to fewer charities, the more organizations you give to, the less and less likely that those donations will positively impact you.

Many Charities
Membership == political clout. If I care about chimp rights and voting rights, if I only contribute to chimp rights, congress thinks I don’t care about farm animal rights. I should split up my contributions to give each group head count.

I don’t know which charities are effective, give money to many charities to maximize the odds that one of them is effective.

Some charities are funded mostly by small donors and care what the small donors think, others are funded mostly by large donors and presumably care less about what small donors think.

Fewer Charities
Obviously some charities should be eliminated from consideration because they are too small to make a difference with that money or put it to significant use (the 6 member animal right group at a community college), or because they squander it on administrative and marketing costs.

A point that doesn’t fit in– charities with low “leverage” shouldn’t get as much money. If you give money to feed children, it creates positive effects for their family, siblings, etc. College scholarships for the middle class, generate benefits for one person– the effects don’t spread far.

Tipping points. Smoking is mostly a won battle. Sort of. Gay rights are at a tipping point. In the US, veganism is far from a tipping point, but in England and German, it might be close to a tipping point. Small donations make the best impact on issues near a tipping point, where the whole of society is about to change their mind, and just needs a $20 shove. Or 100,000 $20 shoves.

The first rule of Math Club is you can only talk about it in symbols and notation

I could give a flying f about little league. I care about Robotics and Math club.

First impressions of Math Clubs.
A math class is like a contract. “Student, learn this algorithm for problems of this type and you will get an A.” Importantly, in math class, everyone in theory can get an A. Math club looks like a math class with a different agreement, “Participants, train on problems of increasing difficulty. You will get a test where the last problems are so hard, no one will solve them. This will minimize the chance of ties and the participants will get fame and glory based on their rank, either on a per team basis or a per participant basis”  But otherwise, it looks like a math class.

Second impression of Math Clubs.It looks like a sport.  In sports, everyone can run. Not everyone can run fast. Not everyone can figure out that only about 10 or so of the numbers from 1 to 100 can be written as a non-terminating decimal. Some not at all. So a fair sport in the math sense is like mental math– everyone can do arithmetic, some can do it faster or more accurately that others.  A similar analogy can be made with spelling bees- everyone can spell something, some can spell more words, the winning word is still something that in theory any participant could do. I admit, I haven’t completely rigorously worked out how a speed arithmetic test is like running, but solving increasingly difficult “puzzle” problems isn’t.

Third impression of Math Clubs.It is a game among players and team where there the actions of the other teams do not figure much into your decisions about how you play the game.

Grades 0-5
Arithmetic Club. I have no idea if these exist. If they did, they should be kind of like spelling bees, with round 1 mental math, round 2 calculator math and round 3 historical devices (e.g. abacus)
Kumon. Worksheets with a focus on speed and arithmetic.

[Arithmetic, Pre-calc]

Grades 4- 8
Math Olimpiad. The contest for the youngest participants, 4th grade.

Grades 6-12
Math Club. Works like a study group, solving problems to practice
e.g. National Math Club/MathCounts
Math Contests. Big sit down tests.
e.g. AMC 8, AMC 10
Mu Alpha Theta National Convention, Log1

Math League-

[Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Pre-Calc] — Why so late?
[Python, Ruby, Javascript]

Grades 9-12
Robotics Club. Building robots and programming them in C++ and Java.

[Geometry, Calculus, Discrete Mathematics]

Get the most Amtrak freebies via Amtrak Guest Rewards (AGR)

Strategy #1. Just get that price down.

Use AmSnagAmSnag finds all the cheap tickets, often late at night.
Joint NARP. 10% discount when you can’t find a better one, AGR points on sign up.
Joint Student Advantage. 10%-20% Amtrack discounts and other “junk” discounts
Sales. The sales are relentless, all over the place and hard to exploit.
Don’t travel so far. If you’re in DC, go to Philly instead of NYC.
Travel at night. If you can bear it.

Strategy #2. Rack up points, get free rides.

Join a signup “cabal” - Find a current member who will “refer” you to AGR. Hope someone pays the favor forward to you someday. Here is one that favors people who hang out at a particular Amtrak Forum
Ride the Train. You earn points based on dollars spent. So the incentive is to buy expensive tickets, not just tickets with high price to mileage ratios.
Points Transfers/Buy points. Get points in one program, and transfer them to AGR.
Amtrack Points cards. Currently there isn’t one and when there was one, it didn’t get good reviews, except for the sign up bonus. Also, the rule of thumb is travel cards work bests for people who spend a lot of on travel, like traveling all the time. If you take two or three trips a year, your benefit from travel credit cards won’t offset the annual fees, high cash in limits, etc.
Join NARP. You get AGR points related to how much you donate.
Cashback Cards - Straight cash might be worth more than transferred points.
Points for Hotels, Car Rental and other services. These feel like junk discounts.

Lotus Sutra Musings

So I read a commentary on the Expedient Means and Long Life chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

These chapters explain the motivation for Mahayana’s initial existence when early Buddhism already existed. Early Buddhism assumed:

The people who heard directly the teaching of the historical Buddha were able to become enlightened. (But few, or no other people since)
The historical Buddha is essentially dead, extinct or in Nirvana.
Another Buddha might come along. In a loooong time.

So a monk from that time could be unhappy that he just missed the Buddha and thus would fail or at least never be successful as those who could hear the Buddha preach in person.

Expedient Means says, the Buddha essentially lied. He faked his death. Why? Because in the days before writing the Lotus Sutra, people needed to think the Buddha was dead and it was grief that was motivating Buddhist practice. Now what has changed about people now adays, I don’t know. I’m not even convinced about this “grief motivates practice (or faith)” theory.

Long Life essentially says the Buddha is so long lived that for practical purposes, he’s immortal. He’s been alive nearly forever, and will be alive nearly forever and is still in this world. This has implications for us mortals because if we can become Buddha’s then we too will be immortal. And have super powers.  And that sounds better than nirvana too, because that bit about all four : extinct, not extinct, not both, not neither is gobbledygook and “I want to live forever” is at least clear, even if the means for making it happen is not.  This also implies that in the Lotus Sutra, the fundamental problem is not *suffering* and not *immortality in the rounds of rebirth in crappy realms* but the problem is mortality– that we die at all.

Next, there are the ideas heaped upon the Lotus Sutra:

Individual practice is ineffective (Mappo), but the comparatively effortless practice of reciting the title of the sutra is, because either the mystic law will do the hard work, or the Buddha who is still in the world will do the hard work. If the mystic law does the hard work, why bother with belief or saying the title? Wouldn’t simply doing nothing be simpler and then letting the mystic law do the work? How does the mystic law know, or care if you are a member in good standing with the group? Why would an insentient law be offended if we didn’t believe it or even slandered it? If it is the sentient Buddha who is doing the work for us, wouldn’t he be compassionate and save us all from death regardless, or he’s he a thin skinned, fragile ego jerk like the Christian god?

Morality is not so much about conventional morality, but “faith”, which is something like obedience. So if we are to have faith in something, why the Lotus Sutra in particular, why, not, oh I don’t know, L Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith or Dawkins? They can’t all be right.  I sort of get faith as a sort of optimism (that Buddhist practice leads to something better than not practicing), but I have no use for this faith on so and so authority. In Zen the authority is derived from a fictional story about the Buddha transmitting the dharma from one monk to another until it gets to us, unmodified. But we don’t have to look far to see breaks in the chain and obvious points of doctrinal innovation. Besides, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what the historical Buddha taught, I only care about which of the many dharmas that exist today, which is the most useful, cogent and in line with *testable* reality.

I have no idea if elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra if it talks about original enlightenment (tathagatagharba) Mixed into the commentary was the idea of original enlightenment, that you already are enlightened, and you just need to notice it and then you won’t feel like you need to seek immortality, you already got it.  This feels like assuming the conclusion. You want to know how to become enlightened? Well, first assume you are already enlightened, and problem solved!

Alternatively this original enlightenment is some *thing* or *quality* about you that exists, but is covered with goop and needs to be cleaned up, sort of an original sin that needs to be magically scrubbed and then poof, you were enlightened, and now the fundamental problem of all the karmic gunk has been scrubbed off.

I did like the idea of three thousand realms in a single instant. Essentially this says that the realms are metaphors and there is a little bit of heaven and hell in every instant. This is actually, in my opinion, a radical, secularizing idea. It salvages the texts that talk about heaven and hell while dispensing with any need to believe in a heaven or hell or reincarnation as a real (not fictional) cosmology.

Anyhow, I think I will end up liking the ideas of the ancient Chinese commentators more than the Sutra itself, the same experience I had with the Avatamsaka. The Huayen philosophers had some keen & interesting ideas, while the Avatamsaka itself is a tedious read.

Come on, do you want to live forever?

Well, yes actually. On my mom’s side, just about everyone got a stroke. So I decided I should pay some attention to strokes. The data from the low fat crowd is pretty interesting. So I tried to find a chart on blood cholesterol and stroke. And I find every crackpot and opposing view possible…

So, lots of arguments about dietary fat. I think the pro and anti fat camps can only agree that it appears to be a key nutrient.

So if you are vegetarian or vegan, you can still eat a high fat diet [can as in, nothing preventing it], except it will probably have less cholesterol and saturated fat. But the new thinking is possibly all fats make the arteries unhappy. So that means you’d need to cut out all the fat, except 10%

Interestingly, if you have fantastic arteries, you can abuse other parts of your body. And probably vica versa. If you don’t smoke, don’t drink, but do everything to abuse your arteries, then you might last longer than you’d expect looking at your fat consumption alone. I think this explains the wild cross-country differences for fat intake. For example, some parts of Russia are low fat consumers (I find this hard to believe, you can’t go any where to eat anything without it being accompanied by meat), and they die at a high rate. I think this is probably more likely a reflection of the collapse of public health after the fall of the Soviet Union. They couldn’t get consumer products to everyone, but command and control authoritarians made sure everyone got basic health care and vaccines.

Also, you are going to die from something. When you switch to being a veg*n, you have a clear conscious and clear arteries, but something is going to kill you. Now you might get a new kind of stroke driven by homocysteine– which is treated by upping your vitamin B intake. Let’s imagine we did that. As soon as you fix that, something else is in line to break.

Take sugar for example. Back when I was casually following a low fat diet because it was a fad, I notice fat in *packaged goods* got replaced with sugar and other carbohydrates. So if you fix your arteries, you might be stressing out the pancreas.

And the plants are trying to kill the herbivores  and the farmers are trying to kill you and the bugs with pesticides, veg*n may need to watch out for stomach cancer.

But even if you eat organic and avoid things that are trying to kill herbivores (bitter plants for example), you still are going to die from something.

I bet I’ll follow all the advice, and get cancer and someone will do a study on me and say, “Well, healthy living is correlated with cancer, lets just binge on cookies, cakes, pop and greasy frozen TV dinners” At least you won’t live long enough to get cancer.


What issues matter, what can be done about them

So when my vote was suppressed, I swore I’d do something about it. And so far I have.

Political Action Groups
I’m now a member of NRDC, Oceana– those are enviornmental protection groups, HSUS, PETA, COK– all animal rights groups, the Brady Campaign, Americans for Nonsmoker’s Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and EFF.

Individual Politicians
I’ve given money to three candidates nationwide who support doing something about the out of control situation with guns. I also gave money to my local Democratic candidates.

I organize the Progressive Book Club of Takoma Park. Picking books was more challenging than I expected– while the right writes identifiable right wing screeds, the left tends to write nonfiction and works of journalism. Oddly, right wingers signed up and at least one left winger refused to sign up because the group didn’t look radial enough. It’s hard to please.

Funding What Should be in Society
In addition to giving money to the government to encourage it to spend money on issues of importance (instead of tax subsidies-i.e. business tax cuts- in return for campaign contributions), I’m directly giving my money to good causes, such as the Poplar Spring Run (a local animal sanctuary), the Takoma Coffee Shop “La Mano”, the Takoma Community Kitchen, and micro-finance lending via Kiva.

Boycotting What Shouldn’t be in Society
I am boycotting Monsanto. I’m dedicated to cutting out non-organic food from my diet. Since Monsanto only sells poison to homeowners (roundup) and farmers– which I am neither, I can’t effectively stop buying from them unless I stop buying from farmers who buy from Monsanto. I do what I can to harass my building about the pesticides they put on the lawn. So far, only a local ordinance has suggested that the building’s board and management company might stop trying to poison us all.  It depends on enforcement.

It’s all new, so it’s hard to say how effective it is. I tweet, re-tweet, I sign petitions. I click “like” and occasionally re-post. I try to be loud about writing a check.

Some things I won’t do online: get into fruitless discussion in the comment section of the news or fight a flame war with anyone. I’m going to see if a blog coupled with twitter & Facebook integration will provide the reach to those who I’d like to reach: progressives who want to do something, but don’t know what. People who would do something, but don’t know it needs to be done.