Coffee from a vintage vacuum pot

Maybe two or three years ago after returning from Japan, I decided I wanted to try replicating the siphon coffee that we were served for our first breakfast. I some research and found out that they used to be very common in the US before auto-percolators took off in the 1960s and were known as vacuum pots because the brewing process created a vacuum, in the bottom chamber, drawing the brewed coffee down into it. I then bought a Nicro Model 500 off Craigslist with the metal filter, figuring it would be less prone to breakage than glass and easier to clean than a cloth filter, which is the style that is used today in Japan.

The problem is, I could never make good coffee. The water wouldn’t heat up to the suggested 205 degrees and it would clog instead of draining.

Then, this past month, I tried it again and it made excellent coffee. It was complex, deep, clean, and even warmer at first sip than a pour-over. I used:

  • a light generic breakfast roast
  • a 17.5:1 ratio
  • a grind size similar to pre-ground drip coffee
  • 900g of water, enough for three mugs of coffee
  • no temperature measurement, only turning down stove and waiting for water to stop bubbling in the upper chamber
  • coffee steeping for around a minute, then turned off gas and let coffee drain

Full brew time was somewhere from 5-7 minutes. When coffee has drawn down properly it creates a mound over the filter and appears dry, like this:

I started thinking how I might have lucked into such a good cup and I realized that a big batch, high ratio, drip grind generic coffee, and no temp control is probably how the device was meant to be used in a 1950s kitchen or diner, where there wouldn’t have been fancy grinders, temp probes, or even time to fuss over the coffee like I would with a manual pour-over.

Fresh off a few great cups, I tried brewing an Ethiopian light roast and it went right back to clogging from all the fines. I guess to use this siphon, I have to keep my coffee styles from the 1950s as well.

Using the Rollei Prego 90 for the first and last time

A few months ago, after catching the film bug, I happened across a 90s-era point and shoot at a local second hand shop. It looked average but had a good name, it was a Rollei, a German brand famous for cameras like the Rolleiflex.

The camera was a Rollei Prego 90, and given how hard it had been to find a half-decent used point-and-shoot, I figured it was worth a try. It was a bit scuffed and had some kind of sticky black tape residue on it, but the LCD was fully functional and it even came with a battery.

I loaded the camera up with Fujifilm Superia 400 and took some great shots around the city. The camera did a great job capturing shadow, sharp contrast, and vivid colors. The film had great grain. It was winning as a good take-anywhere camera, particularly since it was already well-worn.

Then one shot short of the end of the roll, the rear door popped open. The latch holding it shut was made of plastic and it simply snapped. It was a 30-year-old camera, so it was inevitable I suppose. I was able to hold the door on and por the auto rewind with a paper clip, which saved the roll.

If you happen to find another of these cameras, it’s worth a buy. About the only downside is the overly complex menu settings.

A few sample images are below.

Rediscovering film cameras

A few months ago, Paola and I took some friends to Princeton, New Jersey. We were just looking to get out of the city and enjoy a sunny Saturday. While we were there we happened across a store named, interestingly and somewhat incongruously, New York Camera.

Struck by nostalgia, we decided to buy a disposable camera. This one, to be exact. We walked around town taking photos of ourselves and whatever struck us. It was a throwback — The last time I finished a roll of film I was still in high school.

We were hooked. Or at least we were temporarily obsessed like I’ve been with records, baking, beer making, and various other things. Which is funny because Princeton is home to the Princeton Record Exchange, one of the best record stores in the country and a must-visit when in town.

We were encouraged to find a reloadable point-and-shoot, which is when we realized we were several years late to this retro film craze. Prices have been going up for year last several years, particularly for high-end consumer cameras, as the last models were produced roughly 20 years ago.

In the end I found a few duds (broken, sold as-is), stumbled across a gem in Montreal, and dug out my old Fujifilm from high school. Still functional. Then I picked up another on our most recent trip to Princeton. I suppose we’ll use them until they break or pass them on to the next wave of retro fans.

Time will tell if this retro hobby stands the test of time for us given how easy it is to use a cell phone and particularly given the price of film ($10-15 per roll) and the price of developing ($10-20 for digital negative scans). For now, it’s a fun and impractical distraction with unpredictable and sometimes beautiful results.

P.S. One of the upsides of 35mm today is that digital negative scans are the preferred method of delivery, which means you can save your film together with your phone photos.

Below is a sample of photos we’ve taken over the last few months, uploaded directly from my phone:

How do you charge an electric vehicle and how much does it cost?

We recently rented a Tesla Model Y from Hertz and took it on a 900-mile round trip through the Adirondacks, Quebec, Vermont, and the Hudson Valley. This was a bit of a test-drive to see if an electric vehicle could put up with being driven on a road trip that we had planned without much thought to where we’d fill up. It was a fairly smooth trip fuel-wise went despite spending a good chunk of the trip camping with no electrical hookup.

However, this article isn’t about our road trip, it’s all about how charging an EV works and how much it costs. Does electricity beat gasoline as a fuel? It depends. Read on for more.

How to refuel

Tesla Chargers

Tesla has its own proprietary network of Superchargers, which will fill your car from mostly empty to mostly full in 30 minutes. In 45 to 60 minutes it fills the battery to full, which registers as roughly 329 miles til empty. Connecting to a Supercharger immediately starts the charging and payment, which is charged back to you through Hertz. The rate you are charged at is not directly stated, but is roughly $0.48 per kWh (more on that later). 

We used these to fill the car up to full while on the road and added hundreds of miles at a time. In Plattsburgh, we charged from 20 miles up to 320+ miles in an hour.

Other networks

Other networks exist, such as ChargePoint, which we used several times in Vermont and New York. These chargers add the equivalent of roughly 22 miles per hour, though the charging may be halved when two vehicles are connected to the same charger. Interestingly, charging is halved even when the other connected vehicle is no longer charging. Prices are set by the owner of the charging point, which ranged from free, to $0.16 per kWh, up to $1.75 per hour. 

In practice, these were only good for 20-40 miles of charge at a time because we only used them while parked and visiting a town for 2 hours at a time. At this charging rate, you would need 10-12 hours to fill the battery.

How to understand fuel economy

It’s a bit of a mathematical mess to conceptualize how much it costs to fill up an EV. Some places charge you by the minute, others charge you by the kWh, others, Tesla for one, highlight only the price and how much mileage you’ve charged up.

The equivalent to miles per gallon for EVs is kilowatt hours per mile, which is a number determined by the type of vehicle, how fast you drive, and the route you take. Once you understand the price per kWh, you can calculate cents per mile driven, which is how to compare cars with different fuel types.

The issue is that car mileage isn’t measured in cents per mile. To understand the equivalent fuel price you need to take miles per gallon of a typical car and the price of gas and divide one by the other.

In the example below, I’ve used the fuel efficiency numbers from here, prices from ChargePoint and Tesla from our recent trip, and an average recent gas price and economy car mileage.

Tesla Model Y

ChargePoint: $0.16 per kWh X 0.28 kWh/mi = $0.05 per mile. This price is essentially the same price as charging at home.

Tesla Supercharger: $0.48 per kWh X 0.28 kWh/mi = $0.13 per mile

Gas-powered vehicle

Economy gas-powered vehicle: $4 per gallon / 35 mi/gal = $0.11 per mile

“Gas guzzler”: $4 per gallon / 20 mi/gal = $0.20 per mile

As measured in cents per mile, filling up at ChargePoint is less than half the price when gas is at $4, while a Tesla Supercharger is slightly more expensive per mile. If you compare against a “gas guzzler” that gets 20 mpg, the numbers look even better.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that charging at home, assuming the home electric price is similar to ChargePoint, will cost less than half the fuel cost of an economy gas-powered vehicle when gas is at $4/gal. Somewhere like Quebec, where the kWh price is around $0.07, the math is even more favorable to EVs.

When on the road, the Tesla Supercharger network allows you to fill up at a price equivalent to roughly $4/gal gas.

Cheems, the most famous Shiba Inu in Mexico

This is a post about a Shiba Inu from Hong Kong named Balltze who is a superstar in Mexico, where he is known as Cheems. KnowYourMeme traces the birth of “Cheems” to r/dogelore, an American Reddit group focusing on dog memes, in June 2019. In his original incarnation, Cheems was a floating dog head that could only mispronounce the word “cheeseburger.”

The question of why he has become so famous in Mexico was not clear initially. My first thoughts went something like this:

  • People like memes of dogs
  • Cheems is lovably overweight
  • There are some really great memes coming out of Mexico

After some cursory research, I found what might be the reason: the viral “Swole Doge vs. Cheems” meme format was born from a May 2020 post from Mexican meme page Doges artesanales. This readily adaptable format compares a muscular strong “doge” (dog) from a previous era with the weak “doge” of today. It has since spread around the world in multiple languages since it can be easily adapted to dream up new historical and political memes.

Swole doge vs. Cheems

For example, in the meme above, “Swole doge” on the left is a 20th-century musician “a little tired” after an 8-month world tour and two days to record his new album while 21st-century Cheems on the right is complaining to his mom that his music software crashed again.

We could say that this was the moment Cheems finally “made it” in Mexico, but that wouldn’t necessarily be true. Doges artesanales has memes of Shiba Inus going back years. However, until Nov-Dec 2019, the main dog on the site is Kabosu, also known as the inspiration for Dogecoin. Below is a screenshot of the facebook page and the moment the first “Swole dog vs. Cheems” meme entered the world.

The original Swole doge vs. Cheems meme is in the middle of this page

Cheems has become famous enough in Mexico to have spawned dozens, even hundreds of memes and even a handful of pandemic-era home businesses. The pun-based menus below are from a cheesecake bakery and a restaurant selling chilaquiles.

Cheems’s cake (cheesecake)
Chimlaquiles (chilaquiles)

Cheems has even inspired artwork. it’s unknown where this mural below is painted though it’s by a Spanish-speaking artist.

“Hhmm…painting”

Cheems had even been integrated with traditional Mexican holidays. Cempasúchil is the flower used during Day of the Dead celebrations.

It’s “cheemspasúchil” season, referring to the traditional Mexican flower

I’m not really sure how to close out this post, so here’s a history of Mexico told through a Cheems meme:

Haggis is not what you think

Haggis does not sound appealing. All I could recall before ordering it for the first time in Scotland was that it contained sheep’s lung and stomach. In truth, I had ordered it once on Burns Night in New York and was given what I assumed was the inoffensive American version. Now here we were in Scotland and trying the real thing.

It’s actually quite good. It looks and tastes bit a lot like the buckwheat (kasha) with mushroom sauce you’ll get at a Polish or Ukrainian restaurant. Its consistency is similar to Thanksgiving stuffing and as you might expect, it pairs well with both veggies and meat.

We had haggis in the following forms:, each as good as the next:

  • Haggis, neeps (rutabaga), and tatties (potatoes)
  • Haggis Benedict
  • Burger with haggis and cheese sauce
  • Full Scottish breakfast

If I had to choose a favorite recipe above, it would probably be the audacity of the haggis Benedict, combining haggis with poached egg in a classic brunch recipe.

Haggis, neeps, and tatties
Haggis and bacon Benedict
Burger with haggis and cheese sauce
Full Scottish breakfast

Glasgow’s tiny subway

Since we’re in the middle of a work trip to the UK, I was reminded it’s a perfect time for a quick update with one of the little stories from our visit, and this one is truly little: Glasgow has a cute and diminutive subway.

It had fifteen stations on a single loop line, like Mini Metro on easy mode. It also happens to have what appear to be eight-foot ceilings. Within the trains themselves, you’d probably be hitting your head if you’re more than 6’4” or so. To get into the cars you even have to duck! It also happens to be one of the cleanest subways we’ve ever been on.

If you happen to find yourself in Glasgow, it’s the easiest way to get from one of the two main train stations to the botanical gardens or the University of Glasgow, a beautiful campus with great views, which a local told me is the third oldest in Britain after Oxford and Cambridge.

Making hot cocoa from scratch

This past week we were out of hot cocoa mix and Chocolate Abuelita so I looked up how to make hot cocoa out of baker’s chocolate powder. Believe it or not I’d never done this before.

Turns out it’s quicker than melting Chocolate Abuelita and tastes better. It’s one of those rare “from scratch” recipes that’s actually quicker. Here’s the recipe:

  1. Mix about 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup cocoa, and 1/4 cup powdered sugar in a pot
  2. Heat the mixture and stir until blended
  3. Add 3-4 cups milk and blend
  4. Heat until desired drinking temperature. Take care not to boil it
  5. Pour into mugs

That’s it! Enjoy your hot chocolate, everyone.

Scoring internet points: Open source espionage in Russia and Ukraine

The internet has been scoring points against the Russian military lately. “Hacktivists” disrupted the Belorussian Railways (Wired). Viral TikTok has been tracking Russian vehicle movements (ABC News). The drama of political negotiations over the standoff between Russia and Ukraine is happening in the public eye, but what is happening in the background is really interesting, since a lot of what would normally be hidden is out in the open.

The way I see it, there are several participants in the information game, from most to least formal and decentralized:

  • The government
  • Media
  • Think tanks
  • Political risk consultants
  • Open-source intelligence
  • Social media

What’s fascinating is the role of the last two groups and the ways in which they are feeding the groups above them. The sources at the bottom are aggregating information that even governments didn’t have access to only a few years ago.

Still, it’s a bit too early to say that social media is “upending the spread of information” any more than it already has in recent conflicts and uprisings, like Crimea or Eastern Ukraine in 2014-15, but it does feel like this is the first large-scale military escalation that has been subject to this level of social media scrutiny.

I’m going to write a bit about the various players and their

Government and media

Government and media are the most institutional of those providing information. They rely on official press releases and proclamations and seem to have a symbiotic relationship where the media reports breathlessly on whatever the latest negotiation or policy shift has been.

There are bright spots here and there in the media landscape, but media coverage is often in more narrative rather than analysis of intentions. Lately though, the question “will Russia invade Ukraine?” has been prompting some really interesting coverage in mainstream outlets:

The Final Pieces: Three New Signs of Russian Invasion Plans (Sky News)

No, Russia Will Not Invade Ukraine (Opinion) (Al Jazeera)

Whatever the federal agencies like the intelligence services have behind the scenes, that doesn’t generally enter into the equation because unless there’s another Edward Snowden-type event, we’re just not on that “mailing list” and never will be.

This isn’t the first time that government has been “scooped” by social media nor even the first time it has happened to Russia and Ukraine. As the ABC News article above goes into, Russia’s parliament passed a law forbidding soldiers to post on social media in 2019, a rule previously ordered by the Defense Department.

Think tanks

The next group on our list, think tanks, are non-profit policy and research organizations that employ academics and politicians. In some cases, they can serve as a kind of “bureaucracy in waiting” for the party that doesn’t hold office, as many of them have a unstated political agenda and are headquartered in Washington, DC or some other capital. They offer big-picture analysis and bullet point guidance that elected officials may or may not read.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has their own analyses of Russia’s geopolitical motives, published over the last several years:

The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe (2016)

The Kremlin Playbook 2: The Enablers (2019)

The Kremlin Playbook 3 (2021)

This last one describes the doctrine of “Strategic Conservatism” as a lens through which to understand Russia’s geopolitical moves. It’s the most interesting in my opinion as it explains a bit of why Russia was so popular with the Trump crowd and how that fits into a political strategy.

Here’s some additional assorted coverage by think tanks, though honestly when there’s a conflict brewing, most international relations-focused think tanks will weigh in in some way or another:

Crisis Group: Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer

Foreign Policy Research Institute Ukraine coverage

Political risk consultants

Political risk consultants are somewhere between a think tank and a private intelligence agency. They may openly offer policy analysis while cultivating a specialized approach behind the scenes that is tailored to political and primarily commercial clients. They answer questions like, “what will happen to my investments in X given the instability in Y”. It’s hard to tell the extent of their operations, but they hire ex-intelligence officers, so there’s that.

Eurasia Group Top Risks of 2022: Russia (#5)

Stratfor Ukraine conflict coverage

How Russia Could Respond to Western Sanctions With Cyberattacks (Stratfor)

“The Internet”: Open-source intelligence and social media

Lastly, we have social media and internet nerds more generally. What’s been really fascinating to me is the way in which social media is bringing things out into the open. Russian tanks and military equipment are going “viral” on TikTok. The Ukraine conflict is essentially what happens when you take the Russian dash cam video and give it a worldwide audience.

I suppose the assumption here is that things like troop movements and weapons deployments should be done in secret because, well, it’s the military. However, the Cold War games of compellence and deterrence could still be at play here. That is, now that everyone expects these things to show up on the internet, what’s to stop a country from using social media to its advantage.

For one, good journalistic practice suggests you cross-reference your sources. Open-source intelligence group Bellingcat did just that, using a pair of cute puppies to verify that soldiers in Ukraine came from Russia’s Far East. Lately, Bellingcat has been using license plate tracking, a nerdy hobby in Russia, and social media posts to figure out who and what is arriving to the border with Ukraine. Conflict Intelligence Team (Twitter) has been doing the same, with their dispatches picked up widely by the mainstream media.

It’s hard to know the impact of what might amount to some creative internet sleuthing. It does seem to have removed some of the element of surprise. Whether it can alter the calculus of military buildup or stop military conflict remains to be seen. It’s a high stakes game with a lot of bluster on both sides.

Irish Brown Bread and the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Hotline

King Arthur Flour send out a regular catalogue with their products and to encourage you to read to the end they intersperse it with recipes. I saved this Irish Brown Bread recipe from there before recycling it. The recipes often use the specialty ingredients that they’re featuring at the moment, in this case Irish-style flour.

Given that I only had normal flour, I made use of KAF’s most ingenious idea for brand loyalty: the Baker’s Hotline. Have a problem with a bread recipe? You can call, chat or email them at any time.

Tess, Baker Support Specialist from KAF, advised me by email that substituting one cup whole wheat flour with two teaspoons of buttermilk will give the same consistency as the Irish-style flour.

So I made the bread, additionally subbing in 50g of cooked Irish oats for some of the flour and using a Pullman loaf pan instead of a baking tray, and it turned out great.