Archive for August, 2009

Starbucks? Not all that it's cracked up to be

August 19th, 2009

So I went by Starbucks today. The line wasn't quite as long as I had seen it on previous occasions. I went in. What struck me right away was how noisy it was inside. Mind you they're located inside a busy train terminal, with nothing but a delimiting glass panel wall, so it's not going to be a quiet, cozy café. But they clearly had done nothing to insulate from the noise. Which is just as well, because most of it was coming from inside the Starbucks. There was music blasting, and five staffers yelling orders over the music. It was literally as noisy as MacDonalds on a busy day. So much for ambience, none of it. Those stories about people hanging out in a Starbucks - those places must be categorically different from this one.

As I was pondering this, the line advanced and soon I found myself making my order. And that's when I noticed how poorly organized the staffers were. First I made my order to the girl leaning over the cake counter. She proceeded to yell it down the line to the production division. Then I approached the cash register and had to repeat my order to another girl. "A large caffè latte." "Was it a venti?" "I have no idea, I said large." I refuse to speak their pretend language.  The girl who had taken the order chimed in to clarify. I forked over cash and, strangely enough, did not receive a receipt. Are they saving on paper?

That's when I got in line behind the six previous customers who were still waiting to get theirs. Clearly, they were backed up with orders.  My coffee was ready before all of theirs was. But the girl in production had no idea whom it was for, because there were no receipts to work from. The orders were filled, but how to match them with customers? So she asks every person in turn "what are you waiting for?" That was the third time I had to say my order.

All of this somehow distracted me from noticing the beating I took on the coffee. €3.95 for a large caffè latte? That's hilarious. At MacDonalds you can get a meal for a little over 5 bucks. Maybe they could justify the price if the café was a great place to hang out. Or if the coffee were especially good. Or if they were especially well organized and efficient.

koffie where coffee is arriving late

August 16th, 2009

Last week Starbucks opened a branch here in Utrecht, which didn't go unnoticed. I'm not one of those people who are completely nuts about coffee, but I am quite fond of it. I went by Central Station, but the line was much too long. I like coffee, but I'm not going to stand in line like it's Michael Jackson tickets.

Meanwhile, Greg debunks the idea that chains actually have a consistent product and asks why would people flock to Starbucks when they could be having better coffee at a local outlet? The obvious answer is: preconception. Much could probably be attributed to MacDonalds, who have forever maintained that they serve you the same food no matter where you are. Starbucks doesn't really have to do anything to push that idea, it's already been implanted.

But the deeper reason is that this country doesn't really have a coffee culture. Yet. When I moved here I was pleased to find out that koffie is part of the fabric of this society. It isn't a "new" thing like it is in, say, Poland, where tea has always been the dominant beverage. But the Dutch koffie predates the cawfee of today. In countries like Poland and Norway, without a strong existing coffee culture, the yuppie caffè latte gimmick has been a big hit in recent years. (Although in Norway, to "our" credit, most of the coffee places are local entrepreneurs, not foreign chains, and provide considerably better ambiance than sitting in a Starbucks.)  Not so here. With an existing "coffee infrastructure", Holland has not been quite the fertile ground, and the coffee revolution that has placed a coffee place on every corner hasn't happened. Coffee is still, by and large, the traditional sit down experience, and an unremarkable, humble one at that.

You won't find a lot of cafés that serve a caffè latte, or even a solid espresso. Around these parts coffee is still, much of the time, "just coffee". Not the fast food inspired, to-go in a paper cup with a selection of 30 different drinks.

is your town rainy?

August 13th, 2009

Complaining about rain seems to be some kind of ingrained human reflex. But if (almost) everyone is doing it then surely not everyone has a case? Before I moved to the Netherlands I heard people say it rained here all the time. That doesn't agree at all with my observations. But what's a lot? Compared to what?

I know, facts!

The World Weather Information Service has climate information on 1000+ cities around the world. I decided to do a little data mining. All conclusions to follow are based on that data. Just for kicks, I should mention there are very serious methodological problems with this exercise. First of all, they say countries don't necessarily use the same definitions for what's a rainy day or measure precipitation the same way. So you're not really supposed to compare cities. Secondly, when placing cities on a world scale, sampling is everything. And nothing is known about the criteria by which cities are included in the list. We're not gonna let petty details like that stop us, though.

I should also mention that "rain" as used here also includes snow where applicable.

Is it rainy here or what!

So is it rainy here? Let's compare it to the control point: Trondheim. And let's throw in some other data points too, for good measure.

  • Cities with a reputation for rain: Bergen, London, Seattle, some town on the Spanish north coast (found A Coruna on the list).
  • Cities known to be dry: Los Angeles, Zaragoza (turns out to be the driest city in Europe)
  • Other cities: Berlin, Dublin, Milan, Paris, Stockholm

The first number is the total annual precipitation. The second is the number of rainy days.

city            mm/y   days
Bergen          2250   235
A Coruna        1008   171
Seattle          945   122
Milan            943    86
Trondheim        892   216
Amsterdam        780   185
Dublin           733   129
Paris            650   112
London           611   145
Berlin           571   106
Stockholm        539   173
Zaragoza         317    79
Los Angeles      305    27

Bergen's reputation is well justified, it turns out to be the rainiest city in Europe. Rainy London, on the other hand, is a complete myth.

No, not like that, use *all* the facts!

But what do random cities tell us about the big picture? Not much. Let's see how countries place on the overall ranking. Here we see the span they occupy in the list, from the rainiest city on the left to the driest on the right. (Spain refers to mainland Spain.)

rainplot

The Netherlands place smack in the middle. So to say it's a rainy country is an obvious exaggeration, it's pretty much average. The very narrow span is probably due to the small and uniform geography. Norway, on the other hand, is definitely rainy, occupying the space in the rainy portion of the list. Bergen is most rainy, Oslo is least. As for London, it's actually the lower end of the UK span, further diffusing its rainy reputation.

If you like staying dry the very best place to be is Luxor in Egypt, where precipitation is a minuscule 3mm annually. At the other end is Quibdo in Colombia, with an incredible 8m of rainfall and 305 days of rain.

But you didn't...

I know, but this isn't supposed to be comprehensive. If you want to do further work on this data you can get the list I generated:

sms is a garbage protocol

August 8th, 2009
  • no error on transmission failure
  • no failure on invalid recipient
  • no assurance of delivery to temporarily disconnected recipient

All of which amounts to the result that when you do send a text you have no idea if the number is correct, if the message went through, and in the event the person's phone is turned off if he'll ever see it.

Now, I really don't care if the flaws are in the protocol, the phones or the services we pay for; what I do know is that it all makes for an appalling technology whose reliability imitates Microsoft's infamous msn messenger where messages constantly go missing without notice. I hear all the time about messages I never saw and apparently when my phone is off for a few days there is zero chance of getting messages sent in that interval.

Compare it to email, which doesn't have any of these flaws, and it seems incredible that we are actually paying to use this.

And that's to say nothing of the horrendous user interface for typing messages on a phone to begin with.

This entry belongs in a comprehensive tome I have been writing in my head for a decade, detailing just how much cell phones suck. But the field is so vast that it overwhelms my ability to articulate it.

The timeless Riviera

August 6th, 2009

summer_vacation_2009_flags

The beauty of the camping vacation is the enduring feeling of being on site. Air travel is very insular that way, I feel like I'm in the same place right up until I get off the plane, but when you're on the road it's a whole different feeling and more authentic in a sense. It's tiresome if you have to go far to get there, but once you cross the border into where you're going there is a real sense of expectation that gradually bears out. And you can stop anywhere you want along the way.

summer_vacation_route_2009

Locations of interest:

  • Wien (classical concert)
  • Verona (late night outdoor opera)
    Camping right near Lago di Garda - a summer camping hotspot
  • La Spezia (all day visit to the pictoresque villages in Cinque Terre national park)
  • Genova (city walk and a visit to Europe's largest aquarium/oceanography museum)
  • San Remo (walk along the promenade and swimming at the beach)
  • Monaco (city walk, swimming at the beach)
  • Nice (walk along the promenade, swimming)
  • Cannes (walk along the promenade)
  • Ramatuelle by St. Tropez
    Camping at the unbeatable Les Tournels
  • St. Tropez (city walk)
  • Marseille (city walk)
    Camping in Aix-en-Provence - a nice town in itself
  • Les Baux-de-Provence (a splendid ancient castle)
  • Orange (the best preserved Roman theater in Europe)
  • Geneve (CERN museum, city walk)
  • Lausanne (city walk)
  • Bern (Einestein museum)
  • Zurich (natural earth museum and a robotics museum)
  • Munich (Deutches museum - world's largest museum of science and technology)

And that's a way to spend three weeks.