Saturday, April 30, 2011

Coffee, One of the Essential Elixirs

My cuppa espresso -
the reason I was able to post this
I read this article, in paper form, in the best coffee house in my neighborhood (their espresso is sublime and ineffable). It's from the Guardian Weekly, a digest which includes international news, analysis, features and book reviews from the Guardian, plus select articles from the Observer, the Washington Post and Le Monde. The Guardian company has a long history.  It started out as the Manchester Guardian in 1821.  The company nows owns the London Observer,  a venerable Sunday newspaper (1791).  

Can coffee wreck your marriage? Poisonous brew or the thinker's drug of choice?  A new book of essays about coffee and philosophy seeks to uncover the truth
Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, Thursday 14 April 2011

On 29 December 1675, King Charles II issued a Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses. He'd had it right up to the top of his vast wig with the Peace and Quiet of the realm being disturbed by Idle and Disaffected Persons hopped up on proto-espressos.
Bad to the bean: a coffee house at the time of King Charles II
Photograph: Lordprice Collection / Alamy/Alamy
Looking back, perhaps he was right. In 1675, the number of coffee houses in London was roughly 2,000; today that's the number of London baristas who said "Chocolate on top?" in the last minute. We've reached saturation point.
Back in 17th-century England, King Charles wasn't the only person who thought coffee was a social vice. The Women's Petition Against Coffee of 1674 claimed all-male coffee houses were responsible for "a very sensible Decay of that Old English Vigour . . ." by promoting "the excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish liquor called Coffee, which . . . has so Eunucht our Husbands and Crippled our more kind gallants they come from it with nothing moist but their snotty noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints . . ."
But, to the disappointment of those petitioners, Charles bottled it. Two days before his proclamation was due to take effect, he backed down, fearful that his head might go the way of his executed father's – such was English fury about the suppression of an institution that had created the nation's first egalitarian meeting places, the so-called "penny universities".
The debate about coffee's merits has raged ever since. Is it a pernicious brew that causes impotence, arterio-sclerosis, heart failure, indigestion, insomnia, premature old age, pancreatic cancer, birth defects and bad breath, as well as poverty among the farmers who grow it? Or is it an inky nectar that helps prevent Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, liver cancer, gallstones, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer, improves motor skills and reaction times, promotes fair trade to the impoverished south and stimulates both intellectual acuity and social interaction?
The answer is, according to a new book of essays about coffee and philosophy, quite possibly all of these.
Coffee: Grounds for Debate, a title in the Philosophy for Everyone series, argues that coffee is a performance-enhancing drug for thinkers. "The appropriate analogy is that coffee and philosophy go together like foreplay and sex," insist editors Scott F Parker and Michael W Austin. "You can have one without the other, but the latter is better with the former and the former often leads to the latter." Philosopher Basam Romaya says: "With the use of coffee, critical thinking abilities are sharpened, attention to detail enhanced." This is a venerable claim: in the 16th century, Sheik Abd-al-Kadir, an Arab scholar, said: "No one can understand the truth until he drinks of coffee's frothy goodness."
Well, maybe. There is a big problem for such assertions, namely that coffee (an Ethiopian plant first cultivated in Yemen around AD575) wasn't around when some of the world's leading brains were working at full tilt. Aristotle never sipped a macchiato, Socrates didn't have a Caffè Nero loyalty card. Worse yet, some of the greatest later philosophers – Kant and Nietzsche, for example – were coffee refuseniks. Yes, Voltaire reportedly drank 60 cups of coffee a day, but not even the most ardent rookie philosophers should copy him. Costa hasn't created a nation of geniuses.
The book will also stimulate those seeking to understand the aesthetics and ethics of coffee. California philosophy professor and self-proclaimed coffee snob Kenneth Davids lists criteria for excellence: 1. Acidity is good; 2. Smoothly viscous or lightly syrupy mouthfeel is good. 3. Aromatic and flavour notes that are complex and intense are better than simple or faded ones. 4. Natural sweetness is good, too much bitterness bad. 5. Natural flavours and aromas such as floral, fruit, honey and chocolate are better than flavours that come from mistakes made during drying, such as mustiness or moldiness. 6. Long, sweet, flavour-saturated aftertastes are good. 7. The robusta bean makes worse coffee than the arabica.
Marvellous – except that many coffee drinkers don't have the same taste as Davids. for instance, there is something called the "rio note" – a harsh medicinal sensation apparently created by certain moulds. Americans like Davids hate it, but it is widely enjoyed in the Middle East and central Europe. Mmm, yummy – mouldy coffee.
So what about impotence? That does seem to have been overstated. The Women's Petition Against Coffee prompted a broadside from men who argued that it "makes the erection more Vigorous, the Ejaculation more full, adds spiritualescency to the Sperme". Initially I wasn't sure what "spiritualescency" means, either, until I read in this book that caffeine increases sperm motility. That said, some say coffee may harm the sperm while speeding it on its way, which makes a kind of sense.
All in all, the debate reminds me of what Homer once said about alcohol in The Simpsons – that it was "the cause of and solution to all of our problems". Coffee is like that, only more so.
-- end of included article--

P.S.  Note added for EKO, a fellow coffee aficionado.    Many coffee mavens (a shtikel of yiddish here) consider decaffeinated coffee to be an abomination - verging on the sacrilegious.   What is the  physiological basis of this extreme response to an otherwise rather pleasing product (when well made).  The answer probably lies in the molecule called  caffeine and it's many effects on neural and neuroendocrine systems.   The pharmacology of caffeine is summarized in it's wikipedia page (click "caffeine" link above).  It's a competitive inhibitor of adenosine at adenosine A1 receptors (see other subtypes) but also has a wide range of effects on many systems in the body. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

MESSENGER - Mars Orbit #73

The MESSENGER spacecraft has been in orbit for over 36 days now (at approx 2 orbits/day, this is orbit 72+).  Stunning images are being taken at visible wavelengths.  Here is one of the latest

Click to Enlarge -
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University
Applied Physics Laboratory/
Carnegie Institution of Washington
Date acquired: April 15-17, 2011
 Instrument: Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS)
 Center Latitude: 24.4°
 Center Longitude: 264.6° E
 Resolution: 250 meters/pixel
 Scale: The crater in the center of the image is about 105 kilometers (65 miles) in diameter

Of Interest: This image is a mosaic of multiple NAC images. The crater in the center is being crossed by a scarp, such as those seen at Camoes and Thakur.
These images were acquired as part of MDIS's high-resolution surface morphology base map. The surface morphology base map will cover more than 90% of Mercury's surface with an average resolution of 250 meters/pixel (0.16 miles/pixel or 820 feet/pixel). Images acquired for the surface morphology base map typically have off-vertical Sun angles (i.e., high incidence angles) and visible shadows so as to reveal clearly the topographic form of geologic features.

The MESSENGER spacecraft is the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury, and the spacecraft's seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation are unraveling the history and evolution of the Solar System's innermost planet. Visit the Why Mercury? section of this website to learn more about the key science questions that the MESSENGER mission is addressing. During the one-year primary mission, MDIS is scheduled to acquire more than 75,000 images in support of MESSENGER's science goals.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Boston Marathon Number 115

Grete Waitz by Leo Kulinski, Jr.

Very sadly,  I just read that Grete Waitz succumbed to cancer today.    She won the NYC marathon nine times in a span of eleven marathons (1978 through 1988).   She set three course records and won it five times in a row (1982 - 1986).   Her personal best in the marathon was  2:24:54  (London - April 20,  1986,  tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of that achievement).

(Post race note:  Fellow Norwegian, and marathon great  Ingrid Kristiansen won Boston twice, NY, London 4x, Stockholm. She held the marathon world record  for 13 years. (London 1985, 2:21:06).  )
In 1897, John  "JJ" McDermott won the  first Boston Marathon with a time of 2:55:10 !!   It was a small field,  15 runners.  What a difference a century makes!   This year we hosted about 27,000 runners from all over the world.  As you might expect, the BAA  website has improved markedly over the past decade.  Today I'm digging into the results database, it's impressive.  For example,  I searched on runners with Kenyan citizenship (including those not living in Kenya), elite and otherwise,  and found 20 runners.   There were 33 runners from the Netherlands (including two who identified themselves as MDs - showoffs). 

Yesterday's race was really fast (at least for the elite runners).  Clear and dry,  a brisk tailwind (from the West at 20 mph), temperatures in the 50s, and dewpoints of 25 F (that's an RH of 33%), the conditions were about as good as they get - at least based on the results.  In the mens race, Geoffrey Muttai of Kenya ran a 2:03:02 which is the fastest recorded marathon time so far.   However, there are criteria for race eligibility  for an official world record.  A century ago,  the men's world record was around 2:40 - and today the record is 2:03:59  (Berlin 2008) - held by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.

In the women's race,  Caroline Kilel (Kenya) edged out Desiree Davila (USA) by two seconds with a time of 2:22:36.   Clearly the women were having a harder time this year with these "ideal" conditions - the women's world record is just over ten years old  (Paula Radcliff,  MBE - 2:15:25,  London, April 13, 2001).    In 1983,  Joanie Benoit ran a 2:22:43 and set a course record.  In 2002, Margaret Okayo (Kenya) set the women's course record with a 2:20:43.   The first sub-3 hour women's world record occurred in 1971 (Elizabeth Bonner,  2:55:22,  NY Marathon).  Since 1971, the women have shaved almost 40 minutes of the record.  The men have only gained 5 minutes. -  wimps :) 

Joanie Benoit Samuelson (50- 54) ran a 2:51:29.   Christine B. Kennedy (55-59) ran a 2:56:17.  Come on guys! -  get a move on,  you know who you are.  :) 

How "ideal" were the conditions yesterday?  The Boston Marathon is a tricky race.  Disaster lurks for the unwary.   Boston is a windy city. In April,  the sea wind is freezing - the land wind can be anything from Arctic to Tropical - unlike the autumn marathons, with their somewhat more predictable weather,  coastal New England spring weather is highly variable due to cold ocean temperatures and dips in the jet stream.   Some of our biggest snow storms have happened in early April.   Here's a little snapshot of today's date from the NWS  -  TODAY MAXIMUM 48,   Record: 95 F 1976 ;  MINIMUM 41 , Record: 16 F 1875;   AVERAGE 45 .   Yuk!!   So much for averages!

So, how did the top racers do it yesterday?  Well, in short, they flew.  Detailed video analysis shows that the men's winner took a single bound in Hopkinton and his took his first footfall at the finish line.  The Kenyans, in case you don't know,  train for Boston in a zero gravity chamber, or run down Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Some Pesach Yiddish

Yiddish is a wonderfully expressive language.   Knowing even a few words brings a feeling of self naches.  The feeling arises from a deep connection to history, culture and humanity.  It is second only to English in expressiveness (Russians may disagree).  Like English,  it draws liberally on multiple languages, with both simple (usually single syllable) and erudite words and forms.  English has it's origins old north German, Celtic,  and Viking (old Norse). The Roman, and later Norman conquests, brought Latin, Greek and Norman (Old Northern French).

Home Made Matzo - Click to Enlarge
Yiddish was not spoken by the Sephardic Jews . They spoke Judeo-Spanish dialects like Ladino, and came to Europe via North Africa.  Ashkenazim came to Europe through the Byzantine Empire, from the area called Anatolia (Asia Minor),  which is now Turkey.  The Ashkenazi migrated into Germanic-speaking Central Europe (~900 CE) and likely spoke Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East,  and Hebrew.  Middle High German became the base for Yiddish.  Spoken Aramaic became less useful and Hebrew was used for religious purposes.   In 1290, the Jews were expelled from England,  auguring the later xenophobia, antagonism, repression and duress in Germany, France and Spain (~1492 CE).  Jews migrated east to Poland, Russia and the Baltic region.  Eastern Yiddish, absorbing  many Slavic words,  became the main dialect in the Yiddish continuum.  In Western Europe,  Yiddish declined as German Jews preferred German to Western Yiddish. However, in the east, Yiddish thrived until the Holocaust. The Golden Age of secular Yiddish culture, and it's language,  lasted about a century (mid 1800s to ~1945) expanding with the laissez-faire  ethos associated with the Industrial Revolutions.

"Hold on", you say.  What's with the megillah you are dishing out here?   Where is the Pesach Yiddish?
OK,  here's your payoff:  What's the origin of the saying   "Have a zissen Pesach"  ?  "Zissen" is Yiddish for sweet.  It comes from the German "süß" (note:  the beta looking character is a "ligature",  a new character formed from two other ones,  in this case an "S" and a "Z")

Eye of Horus (Egyptian)
 MFA Boston (click image to enlarge)
As a bonus bit of Yiddish,  (and still Pesach related) -  What does  "kein ein hora" mean?   This is a nice melange of Hebrew and German.  The first word "kein" is German in origin,  meaning no or not.  The last word is definitely not German.  The last word "hora" ( הרע )  means "evil" in Hebrew.   The "ein" is a little tricky,  ein means "a" "one" or "any",  so literally "not any evil"  would result.  But it's not quite right,   the ein is likely not German. The word eye in Hebrew is  "ayin" ( עין ) , so kein ayin hora.  A slim possibility is the Germanic version of "eyes" -  augen in German an oygn in Yiddish - so kein oygn hora. (a bit doubtful considering that the saying generally uses the singular form of  eye).   Avoid the evil eye!

Finally,  Yiddish is written with Hebrew characters.  It may look like Hebrew but it ain't.  Well I hope you like my little tsholent  (stew - one of those russian words in Yiddish) and another Yiddish word tsimmes צימעס which is similar but also means "big deal". 

"Have a zissen Pesach"

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

World Cosmonautics Day - 50th Anniversary

Today is the 50th anniversary of World Cosmonautics Day which celebrates the first manned spaceflight made by Yuri Gagarin.    The flight of Vostok 1 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome  launched (no pun intended) the era of space exploration.   The etymology of  launch is interesting:  it is derived from the Latin lancea  (lance in English).  Lance  has several related meanings. As a noun it is a spear-like weapon of war and also a surgical instrument.  Verbially, it means to pierce (to make an opening in).  

Click to Enlarge

Vostok 1 achieved an orbital trajectory.  This meant that the spacecraft needed a "retro burn" to slow it down enough to change the flight path to one that entered the atmosphere,  and could slow down  further by air drag,  and eventual landing on earth via parachute.   If the retro-rockets had failed,  Yuri would have been in orbit for a long time.  A few weeks later,   the USA launched the spacecraft  Mercury-Redstone 3.  The American mission was a sub-orbital  space flight.   Retro-rockets were required on the mission to achieve a "splashdown"  300 miles downrange from the launch site.   Although the first manned American effort was much less bold in scope,  it heralded the rapid surpassing of the Russians in space technology and boldness which led to the successful lunar landing missions beginning with Apollo 11.

This classic photograph of the Earth was taken on December 7, 1972. The original caption is reprinted below: View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon. This translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap. Note the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Arabian Peninsula can be seen at the northeastern edge of Africa. The large island off the coast of Africa is theMalagasy Republic. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the northeast.


Friday, April 1, 2011

First Orbital Images of Mercury

The MESSENGER mission to Mercury has acheived orbit around the planet.   The first images from orbit were obtained today.  They are spectacular.

First color orbital image of Mercury obtained today. Click to enlarge
Mariner Spacecraft observed? - ironically on April Fools' day.