I’ve been in Seattle three times in the past month, for three different reasons: (a) the Microsoft Manycore Workshop, (b) a Computing Community Consortium council meeting at the University of Washington and (c) the Microsoft Research (MSR) Faculty Summit. Seattle is a great city and, well, it’s the birthplace of Starbucks. This led me to think about coffee and culture. The U.S. and the rest of the world have experienced a coffee revolution in the past decade. My spiritual journey to oneness with Juan Valdez is not atypical.
Surprisingly, I completed graduate school without succumbing to caffeine addiction, but I did seem to need coffee to get tenure. Either that, or the cold Illinois winters at UIUC just made holding a hot cup of Joe seem really attractive. Perhaps the old mathematics joke really is true: a professor is a device for converting coffee into theorems.
Off Topic: Science and Technology
At the MSR Summit, Craig Mundie, Rick Rashid, Jeannette Wing and I opened with a plenary discussion of multidisciplinary research, moderated by Ed Lazowska. (You can watch the video here). All of us (and the audience) agreed that the nature of computing was changing rapidly and dramatically and that the ecosystem of partners must embrace new collaborations, new approaches and more innovative, higher risk projects. We also discussed the need for simplified visa processes for graduate students, the good and bad of tenure and the need for greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Not too surprisingly, these are also the key observations of the forthcoming PCAST NITRD report.
Now Back to My Coffee …
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at what I saw when I left a Seattle Starbucks via an interior door that exited into an office building. I walked down the building corridor to exit on another street, and I passed a second Starbucks in the same building. I leave as an exercise to the reader to estimate the date when Starbucks completes a Penrose tiling of the oblate spheroid we call Planet Earth.
Coffee wasn’t invented by Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, but he certainly redefined coffee as an experience rather than a just a drink. However, Howard obviously learned a few things from the Europeans, where coffee and society have long been deeply intertwined.
I’m a member of an advisory board for the University of Vienna, where one of my favorite experiences is sitting in a Viennese coffeehouse, watching the people go by. It really does remind one why “café society” was born there. And yes, Starbucks is in Vienna too, but while there, I prefer the local stuff.
At the 2003 Supercomputing (SC) conference in Phoenix, I stopped at Starbucks for my morning triple vente latte (an eye opening breakfast in a single cup). I joined the end of the line (that would be the queue for you Brits) and watched the Europeans ahead of me. Seeing them order double espressos, then drink them like whiskey shots was quite a sight. A double espresso at the cash register is definitely a “hand around your throat, slam you against the wall” morning wakeup. I realized that, absent the Starbucks logo, airy environment and cheery music, we could all have been addicts at a methadone clinic, seeking our morning fix.
Like all addicts, I know the importance of proximity to a source. I have an espresso machine and a Keurig one cup coffeemaker at home, and my Sunday afternoon joy is a big latte and the New York Times -- stimulation for the mind and the body, both there on the kitchen table. At work at RENCI, I trade the Times for the Wall Street Journal and a jolt from our office espresso machine. That leads to another coffee story.
I was in Brisbane to visit my old friend Simon Kaplan, dean of information technology at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Observing the inevitable jet lag in my glazed eyes, Simon asked if I’d like an espresso. Duh! While his espresso machine was grinding beans in the break area, I asked Simon how he had navigated the university bureaucracy to buy an espresso machine. He said he'd bought it because the staff were working hard and he wanted to do something to show he knew it. He'd simply requisitioned it as a “supply” and written “morale” under justification. The mark of a master administrator, I thought – cool!
Last year, RENCI followed standard procedures to purchase a high-end consumer espresso machine, only to literally use and abuse it to the point of hardware failure. (It takes a lot of coffee to power 80 computing researchers.) In recognition of our need, we recently replaced the consumer machine with a higher grade Saeco Idea machine, complete with plumbing and (soon) web interface. Such is nirvana, both kinds of wired in a single device!
I’d write more, but my cup is empty