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]

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.

Votes get suppressed. What can you do to replace a vote?

Okay, for the last two elections, lines started to get really long. Now when I changed states, I couldn’t vote because I didn’t have a driver’s license. I take the metro. So apparently, anyone who takes mass transit is liable to commit voter fraud, or more likely, not Republican enough for the corrupt voting boards.

Voter suppression is the rightwing strategy to make voting difficult for women and minorities and city dwellers so that Republicans will remain a viable party.

Unlike the the poor, black, asian and so on that the Republicans really wanted to suppress, this time they suppress the vote of a white guy. I wasn’t going to vote for Republicans anyhow, but now I’m mad. So I’m joining as many progressive political groups as I can, top among those MoveOn and the ACLU, both which are working on voter’s rights. So here are some things I will be doing in my spare time over the next 40 years since voting isn’t a sure thing anymore. I’ve added my rough estimate of how many vote equivalents each is worth, and given that the Electoral College system makes the marginal vote about as important as mouse farts, maybe in the long run this will work out of the better. All the same, better than a successful revolution after a nearly stolen election, I’d rather not have the Sith Lords take over in the first place.

Donate to GA, TX and AR Democratic party. Worth 50 Votes.
Money talks, well, as long as you have an attractive candidate. And the Dems have more attractive candidates. If GA, TX and AR turn blue, the GOP will be excluded from the presidency for generations. There aren’t enough old white men in those states for the GOP to govern without repeal non-white and women franchise and maybe the repeal of voting altogether.

I’m going to read the news Worth 25 votes.
The poor and disenfranchised are getting screwed because they aren’t paying attention. I can read, I read fast and I use RSS and I can amplify the the news that is being ignored. I even have truth on myside– since as a progressive I won’t need to make up material.

I’m going to blog. Worth 6 votes.
My task as a political blogger is much easier than for conservative bloggers as I only need teach people how to resist voter suppression, where as conservatives have to move the opinions of their sole audience of old white men to political la-la land and get them to vote. Despite the barriers.

I’m joining about about 22-25 groups. Worth about 20 votes.
Votes in congress are only one way that policy gets made. I don’t have $300 million for attack ads, but I got a few hundred bucks to fund a variety of lawyers, think tanks, activists, watch groups that help decide what congress will be voting on in the first place.

I organize meetups. Worth about 15 votes.
I’ve organized so many meetups I’ve lost count. I create groups like I sneeze. In this election I saw that right wing literature is outselling progressive books. I suspect that in part that is because a lefty will read the original, say, Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is not the the politics section, while right wingers need to have their books written by ideological hacks, which will end up in the politics section.

I’m taking election day off. Forever. Worth 20 votes.
I’m not working class. I can afford to use my vacation days to vote and to spend the day driving people to the polls.

It’s time to take America back from the corrupt right wing voting boards.

(First posted Nov 12, 2012)

Commitment Devices

I’m reviewing BeeMinder and HabitRPG as commitment devices. Personal challenges I see:

- Incentive to catch up at last minute (progress due midnight)
- Incentive to pick goals that allow for catch up. (marching around the bedroom for the pedometer, writing a blog post at 11:30, vs goals that hard hard to catch up at midnight, such as weight loss– you can’t lose a 1/2 lb between 11:30 or 12:00– okay maybe you could but that’s gross.)
- Incentive to do data entry at last minute. I want to be in bed at midnight, not logging on.
+ Data entry can be done via device (pedometer, wifi scale, runkeeper, blog rss, ITTT emails)
-/+ Automatic data entry goals at the moment, but quirk of luck, favor solitary activities (running, writing), although a few are ambient (walking, weight)
-/+ My goals without measurement would really need a judge to keep me honest– For example # of books read to the toddler. Maybe if my significant other did the data entry.

Anyhow, just started looking, maybe there already are features to address all of this.

I have to track progress done yesterday if I do data entry in the morning.
Data entry requires logon (as opposed to ambient collection)
Can’t seem to undo a click.


Advocacy Group of the Month: ACLU

Why do I like the ACLU? They fight for the right to vote. The believe it is more important to let people vote than anything else.  Voter suppression is a right wing tactic to get more white Republicans into office.  Even if you are a white Republican, you should favor the right to vote.

1) It’s democracy. Not voting is authoritarianism. If you are fundamentally an authoritarian, really, what tribe are you from?

2) Racism and flat out preventing Democrats from voting is illegal, so voter suppression is likely to back fire time to time and suppresses *your* vote. Do you trust the party to suppress the right votes?

ACLU stands up for religious freedom and a division between church and state, something that is important when both those who are over enthusiastic about spreading their religion and those who are over enthusiastic about repressing religion from time to time convince the government to go to far in people’s private matters of conscious.

ACLU is an interesting organization in that their laser like focus on principles sometimes put them on both sides of the progressive-conservative divide.

Everyone, left and right, should be a member of the ACLU– (except authoritarians, like really people?)

Join here:

A model for readership dropoff

Kindle has popular highlights and a pseudo-pager number system. So a 200 page book might have 5000 locations. A book might have 15 popular highlights, maybe 20 people for the first, 10 the second, 2 the 15th.  The highlights are located at various locations, say 1% in, 5% in, and the last is at 20% in.

The quality of a sentence affects the # of highlights.  Also the location of the book affects # of highlights because people stopped reading the book.

readers = a + b x
– where the intercept is 100% , all readers are present on page 1.
– the slope is negative and represents the drop off rate.

highlights = quality of sentence  * readers(x)

The number of highlights depend son the quality of a sentence, which is constant, but unknown. So a good sentence will be highlighted say, 1% of the time.

So someday when I have time, I want to see if I can establish the confidence intervals for the curves. Because there are so many constraints, it seems like we should be able to get good estimates of the drop off rate despite relatively few data points.