Thursday, June 28, 2007

Something's Mything

Who’s bad? Michael Jackson uttered those famous words in 1987 and spent the next 20 years answering his own question. Outside the court of public opinion many of us have misconceptions about who’s bad in the world of environmental issues. Our crack staff of talented reporters (see: me) set out to discern the oft-misunderstood aspects of environmentally (un)friendly behavior in our everyday lives.

Myth: Tearing down the highway at ungodly speeds is better for fuel efficiency because it increases the speed in which you arrive at your destination.
Fact: Due to air resistance, which increases at the rate of velocity squared, traveling a mere 5 miles an hour over the speed limit decreases your fuel economy by an average of 6 percent.

Myth: Turning off and restarting a car requires more energy than idling.
Fact: Idling for more than ten seconds uses more gas than restarting the engine. Also, and this is crucial for us Central New Yorkers, idling is not an effective way to warm-up an automobile. A vehicle should idle for no more than 30 seconds before taking to the road, even in the coldest of temperatures.

Myth: Motorcycles are better for the environment than cars.
Fact: Motorcycles tend to get substantially better gas mileage than automobiles but according to a study recently published in the journal of Environmental Sciences and Technology motorcycles emit “16 times more hydrocarbons, three times more carbon monoxide and a ‘disproportionately high’ amount of other air pollutants compared to a car.”

Myth: Living in the country = Being green
Fact: City living is far more efficient in terms of energy and water use. New York City is the “greenest” city in the United States and cities in general require far less land, fewer automobiles and use little or no pesticides and fertilizers. Further, gallon for gallon lawn mower engines contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions than 2006 cars and concrete tends to grow much slower than grass.

Myth: Green household cleaning products carry the label “all-natural” or “organic”
Fact: While this may be true in some cases, government regulation for such terms is not very strict. A product may be substantially less “natural” than it claims. Try to avoid products that contain the words “Danger” or “Caution” as these products are rarely environmentally friendly.

They Say Sky’s the Limit
And to me that’s really true
And my friends you have
Seen Nothin’
Just wait ‘til I get through

Let’s hope Mr. Jackson’s histrionics are through, and hopefully after this article, so will all of your environmentally unfriendly behavior.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Reluctant Environmentalist

Note: This is the back page editorial for Envi Magazine, a regional (Central New York) environmental magazine. I'll post the link to the website when it's up.

Despite an appreciation for the work of Bill Nye and a sentimental attachment to the Coldplay song, I am not a scientist. Further, as my parents, sisters, girlfriend and local liquor store clerk can affirm, I am also not a member of the clergy. That being said, I do not hesitate to speak authoritatively on either science or religion because after all, I am an American and I am righteous.

The intersection of science and religion has traditionally been the site of many accidents. Rarely have leaders of religion embraced the foremost science of their day and scientists have mostly had a tenuous relationship with the Church. For this reason, the movement to label environmentalism as a religion has seemed particularly peculiar.

Esteemed scientist, er, science fiction writer, Michael Crichton, branded environmentalism as a religion in a 2003 speech, in San Francisco. He equated organic foods with communion and sustainability with salvation. His evaluation of the environmentalist movement became a rallying call for the “anti-environmentalist” community, who has subsequently blogged, posted, texted, and reported (mostly on Fox News), about the “religion” of environmentalism. While much of Crichton’s speech was patently absurd, his message was not wholly without merit.

-Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an –ism he should believe in himself.

- Ferris Bueller

Environmentalists, like members of traditional religions, are concerned for the country and the world in which they live. Both groups have certain beliefs regarding existence, man’s roll in the world, and our responsibility to one another. Both seek to effect change and make the world a better place. Both groups adhere to a code that governs their behavior and wish for others to do the same. These elements are all very much in step with the roll of traditional religions and, in and of themselves, are not particularly bad things.

Problems however, do arise as a result of too many people, within the environmentalist community, thinking similarly (or engaging in group-think per the parlance of our time). It creates an atrophy of new ideas and a codification of old ones. This may be a desired result in traditional religion but it is a matter of heresy in science. In environmentalism, it is essential to have a wealth of perspectives and ideas, devoid of agendas, about what is best for the Earth and its inhabitants.

Modern examples of the codification of old ideas include the continued implementation of widespread recycling programs despite their limited effectiveness and a weariness to further explore nuclear energy as a viable alternative to fossil energy. Both of these topics are matters of debate and exploration but both should be debated and explored, not stifled by an old guard and protected by their followers.

New concepts such as carbon captures or carbon vents may not follow the traditional tenets of conservationism but that does not mean that they are not worthy of consideration and further study.

A veritable forest of ideas exists in the struggle for a “greener” earth; it is essential that we not lose the forest for the trees in our search. Take it from an authority.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Linking for the Readers

The internet seems to breed hyperbole. I think it's the anonymity coupled with the unprecedented accessibility the medium provides. Whereas in most situations in life individuals are held accountable for their words/actions, the internet provides a wild west for any jackass with a mouse and a modem. Then once the initial overblown remark is made every subsequent poster/blogger/whatever feels the need one-up the statement with their own wild embellishments. This behavior has become so pervasive that its leaked into mainstream media outlets. Formerly trusted news sources like CNN and 60 Minutes have become so wrapped up in the hype that their reporting has suffered and names have been tarnished. It's a fucking disaster and not one that should be glossed over on the way to the story about Paris Hilton's penitentiary eating routine or a photo of the Fattest. Woman. Ever. It's a serious problem that requires serious people to offer serious solutions.

That being said, this is the most exciting link on the internet!!! I can't fucking believe how cool that shit is. Below I've put together a bunch of recommendations for your viewing pleasure.

Disclaimer: Not all of the shows on the site have the full series available. This is a major hindrance for certain programs and not a big deal for others (starting mid-way through a season of Nip/Tuck would be much more difficult that joining the Sara Silverman Program mid-way through for instance). I've kept that factor in mind in my recommendations. Also, there are certain programs that I am not going to recommend due to their ubiquity in pop culture (Seinfeld, Sopranos etc.) or due to past endorsements (Arrested Development, the Wire etc.).

5. My Name is Earl: Funny and innovative American sitcom. We don't make many of those anymore.

4. Oz: I just googled t.v. hall of fame to see if there is one (there is), because at some point it's going to have to devote an entire wing to HBO programming. Oz never had the audience of the Sopranos or Entourage but it is still a dynamite series and would be higher if there were more episodes.

3. The Office (UK): I bought the DVD set of this show about a year and a half ago and it took me 3 episodes to fully appreciate the humor (much dryer than Coupling for instance). Once acclimated its a gem worth the time.

2. Deadwood: Another horse from the HBO stable, each show covers about a day of action in the town of Deadwood but so much happens you lose years from your life.

1. Coupling: This is like the British Friends, only funny. The show was not constricted by the shackles of political correctness or derailed by the emasculation of its male characters and as such, the show is genuinely funny and genuinely sincere.

Also recommended but not included for various reasons: Weeds, This American Life, Sarah Silverman Program, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Turning on the Stone

In honor of an impending trip to Turning Stone, I'm posting a story I wrote last semester. The instructions were to write a day in the life story. Most people wrote stories following around a local government official or resident of some note. I wrote a day in the life of a poker table. It's easily the most profitable story I've ever written.

Before that, I wanted to post a very exciting internet discovery. If you're already a fan of the show Arrested Development this is a treat, if you're not, I highly recommend watching a couple episodes. It's a matter of blasphemy to claim that there has ever been a better sitcom than Seinfeld but this show came very close.

On to the tale...

The only clock in Turning Stone casino resides in the poker room. The clock is there so that the dealers know when to switch tables. When I arrived on Wednesday evening the big hand was pointing to the 4 and the little hand had just passed the nine.

9:20: The room is well lit. Flat screen televisions line the room’s perimeter, fifty or so poker tables are in neat rows and columns, the carpet is generic casino tacky. I ponder the idea of a company that’s business is solely devoted to furnishing and carpeting casinos with the cheesiest patterns possible.

9:30: After putting my name on the list for a $100 max buy-in table I am called over the p.a. system. I am standing four feet from the man who announces my name into the microphone.

9:35: I am seated at a table with six 20-somethings, two of whom are listening to headphones; two 50-somethings, one of whom is getting a massage; and one 70-something; all male. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in poker rooms and this is a standard crowd.

9:40: The massage ends, the gentlemen receiving it, sitting directly to my right, says to the masseuse, “can you tell I’ve been driving all day?” she smiles at him as he hands her the money then walks away without responding.

9:50: I’m dealt a pair of queens and win $30 on the hand; a good start to the evening.

10:00: A new dealer by the name of Henderson arrives. Henderson is a cheery, short, Asian man.

10:25: I double my stack with Ace/King, I’m up to $250, the 20-something who lost the pot to me says “that one hurt” he’s down to under $100.

10:30: A new dealer Tiane arrives, the 70-something’s wife (?) has also arrived and is sitting right behind him at the table.

10:35: 70-something wins a very large pot, his lady friend is labeled a “lucky charm” by the all-day driver who then asks her to sit by him, the table chuckles.

10:45: I win a huge hand, crippling a pleasant, talkative, 20-something. My stack is over $500.

10:55: The pleasant, talkative, 20-something loses the remainder of his stack and walks away silent. He has lost over $400 in ten minutes. Upon his departure the 70-something says he feels bad, two of the 20-something’s disagree, saying they only feel bad that his chips didn’t end up in their stacks. The 70-something is the worst player at the table.

11:15: Two of the 20-somethings are from Long Island. I am from Long Island. One is from the town right next to my hometown and is good friends with a former classmate of mine. All of the 20-somethings at the table are in college or grad school. I ask a S.U.N.Y Binghamton student how long it takes him to get to the casino, he says “If you do between 85 and 90 the entire way it’s an hour an a half” he then confirms that he arrived in an hour and a half.

11:40: Henderson returns and says “Henderson back,” the table greets him warmly.

12:00: There is talk of a hand that occurred over an hour ago, when one player got lucky to defeat another player. Lucky player: “my hand wasn’t even that good.” Unlucky player (with an air of disgust): “I know.”

12:05: I knock out the 20-something from the town right next to mine. He walks away without saying goodbye. I am up to $600.

12:25: Binghamton is having a discussion with a floor manager about what he can and cannot do with his chips. He has over $400 in chips and wants to take some money off the table but “doesn’t want everyone thinking (he’s) a scumbag, cause (he’s) not.” The 70-something proceeds to refer to him as a scumbag for the next half an hour.

12:45: The table has thinned to five people, Binghamton calls the floor manager back over to inquire into the possibility of combining with one of the other $100 max buy-in tables so that we can play a full, ten handed game. Binghamton: “What do the other $100 tables look like?” Floor Manager: “’bout the same as this one, just scattered around the room.”

2:40: A father and son sit down at the table. Binghamton and I are the only two players left from when I arrived.

2:55: I ask what time it is, I can still see the clock but my cognitive abilities are beginning to fail me. Eric the dealer points me in the direction of the clock and says “2:55,” he proceeds to tell me that the clock is the only one in the casino; I promise myself I’ll leave when it says 3:30.

4:50: I stand up to leave. Binghamton is still at the table with eight other 20-somethings. I say goodbye, the whole table responds, none of them know my name. I walk out with $675, they all know how much I have.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Paul Potts singing Opera

I don't really know much about opera but this seems pretty special.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Chase-ing an ending

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.
- Anton Chekhov

Apparently David Chase is not a fan of Uncle Vanya.

I've read allot of different theories about yesterday's Sopranos series finale, and while I appreciate the episode's ability to inspire discussion, I am disappointed with the shows execution. I was not looking for all the loose strings from the previous 6 seasons to be tied as tight as my stomach but some sort of resolution would have been nice.

My take on the ending: the guy who walked into the bathroom (ala Godfather) was not the hitman because he would have no reason to hide the gun in the bathroom in the first place. And the black dudes seemed innocuous. So I think Chase was really just trying to show how paranoid Tony had (rightly) become and how he would have to go on thereafter.

The other compelling idea I read, was that Tony was whacked in that scene but never saw or heard it coming (ala the conversation he had with Bobbie at the beginning of the season). This idea is flawed - in that we rarely (if ever) saw life through Tony's eyes, and we were not, when the screen went black - but it is interesting nonetheless.

That being said, I thought the final scene was a bullshit cop-out. I've read a bunch of French Existentialism and some of it's fucked three ways from Sunday, but you know what? I dig it. And I always will, but there is a time and a place and the series finale of Sopranos was no place for Sartre to be rearing his froggy head. In my opinion, the only way to have properly ended the Sopranos, would have been to have the episode take place several months after the penultimate episode (Chase & co. have done it many a time in the past), this would have allowed for flashbacks and for the previous several months to unfold at a rhythmic pace. That way if Tony were, killed, indicted, or turned states evidence, we (the viewers) would be able to see the fall-out on the F(f)amily. Obviously that is not to be, but if they make a Sopranos movie or another season, after that ending, then Chase and all those who applauded his "artistic vision" should have to publicly apologize for accepting that nonsense.

Friday, June 8, 2007

GWBG Cares about Black People

At least as much as I care about white people anyway. I first read about these studies in Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, and I thought that they were a wonderfully innovative way to test the subconscious. Thus far I've taken the Race IAT, the Sexuality IAT, and the Presidents IAT. Apparently I have no prejudices regarding race but I have a preference for straight people over gay people and for Reagan over Bush (aside: about a week ago I realized that if I included my confirmation name, my first three initials are GWB. This amuses me to no end).

It's good to know that I harbor no racial preferences. When I was in high school, there was this girl in my AP US History class that was amazingly stupid. For some reason I was thinking about race one day when she offered up one of her gems of anti-wisdom. She was white and it occurred to me that I know far too many idiots in my own race to believe we could possibly be superior to another race. That was an important revelation in my life. Not that other races aren't inferior to mine, but that mine, could not possibly be superior to any others.

On an entirely unrelated note, I highly recommend picking up this months Esquire (in fact I recommend getting a subscription, it's $8 well spent). There's an article on radical honesty by A.J. Jacobs, that is excellent. In the near future I'm going to write a post in the radically honest format (this current post is honest, it's just not radically honest). There is also a Stephen King novella that's dynamite.

I'm in the midst of putting together a 'top 5 people I'd like to get drunk with' post but I'm on my way out and don't want to rush it. I'll prob finish and post it tomorrow. Two other administrative notes; first, Wednesday's post was an article I wrote for a magazine article writing class, it's long but I thought people might find it interesting, second, a fellow blogger commented on a story a couple days ago and while I was reading the comment, I noticed that their is a 'preferences' section. Apparently I had it set up so that only people who registered were allowed to comment. Apologies, you can now comment without having a blogger account (I don't mean to suggest that you're falling all over yourself to comment, I just want to let you know of the availability). Be back soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Starbucks v. Freedom

In a memo from earlier this year to members of senior management, Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, expressed concerns over the “watering down of the Starbucks experience.” Schultz bemoaned the loss of “romance and theater” that the chain’s old La Marzocca machines – replaced by automatic espresso machines in order to increase speed of service and efficiency - had provided. He fretted about loss of aroma due to flavor locked packaging and he lamented the decision to streamline store design thus creating “stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store.”

The memo reflected an understanding of the unique niche that the coffee house has come to occupy in American culture. Coffee house culture initially rose to prominence in the 1950’s buoyed by the literary and musical sensibilities of the Beat Generation. Coffee houses became cathedrals to folk music and leftist thought during a time when the rest of the country was leaning more and more to the right.

As the cultural significance of the Beat Generation waned and many of its leaders were relegated to the fringes of society so too were the coffee houses in which they had read their poems and played their music.

Coffee house interest returned in the 1980’s in much the same spirit as that of the late ‘50’s. Over time however coffee houses would assume a very different role largely due to the franchising of the coffee house experience.

This is the story of two coffee houses that have become homes. One, to millions of American’s each day and one to thousands of Syracusians each week. The stories are wildly different in some respects and eerily similar in others. But each in their own way suggest something larger than coffee.

Freedom of Espresso

The Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” is playing from a smallish egg looking radio that doesn’t amplify particularly well. There’s a cute, impossibly skinny girl serving the two women in line. We are the only four people in the place. To my right I see three mounted paintings, two of fish and one of a collection of wine bottles. In between a fish and the wine bottles is a mural - presumably of the first Freedom of Espresso - thumb tacked to the wall. I step forward and order my coffee and bagel. The server, wearing a purple hooded sweatshirt and teal, dangling earrings, pours my coffee into a cup, places a bagel on the counter and asks if I want cream. When I say yes, she places a carton of half and half on the counter; I top off my drink and sit at a table in a well lit corner. “Paper Thin Walls” by Modest Mouse comes over the eggaphone.

Anna and John Dobbs opened their first coffee house in November of 1995 and were immediately subject to corporate interference. The Dobbs’s, who are divorced, were sued by Federal Express, after attempting to trademark “Federal Espresso,” their store’s original name.

“An old friend of mine, decided to represent us pro bono which Federal Express didn’t count on, usually they try to lawyer you to death. So they spent over a million dollars suing us and we agreed to change our name but we didn’t say to what, so we changed it to Ex Federal Espresso and they sued us again.”

The Dobbs’s were again forced to change their name and in July of 2000, officially switched to Freedom of Espresso, a term that ran as the headline of a reader’s letter to the Syracuse Post-Standard lamenting the coffee house’s legal troubles (at publication, the Post-Standard had yet to claim copyright infringement).

Over the next several years Freedom of Espresso grew to three stores with two in the downtown Syracuse area and one in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville. Then Starbucks came to town.

In autumn of 2004, Starbucks opened down the street from the Freedom of Espresso in Fayetteville. In June 2005, another Starbucks opened right across the street from the Dobb’s second Freedom of Espresso in downtown Syracuse. “They tried to put us under, which they almost did, but we survived. That’s what they do.” Anna Dobbs said in fits and starts.

The Dobbs’s have given a great deal of thought to Starbucks.

“Well when they first opened up, Starbucks concept was great, it was wonderful, they had a great product…Then [their] business strategy changed, it was quantity rather than quality, and as a result, the coffee isn’t as good as it used to be, which allows regional roasters to be able to compete. The biggest problem with competing with Starbucks is they’ve got a reputation that was built around when they first opened and…” Mr. Dobbs said before getting cut off by his ex-wife who expanded on his argument.

The Dobbs’s unusual relationship manifests itself in the uniqueness of their store design. According to Ms. Dobbs, the process of building a store is collaborative effort that usually depends on the makeup of the building’s space and the stores location. A Freedom of Espresso, in a suburban area with a great deal of automotive traffic, contains large wooden tables and comfortable, padded, oak armchairs, giving the space the feel of a library. Another store, in an urban neighborhood that gets more foot traffic, has chest high tables and waste high stools. Yet there are elements that tie the stores together. Several of the stores display mounted articles of Syracuse University athletic achievements and all of the stores contain stained glass windows, courtesy of Mr. Dobbs, a former glass artist who gave up the business to work full time for Freedom of Espresso.

There are now four Freedom of Espresso’s in the Central New York area (thus making it a mini-chain according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s guidelines) in addition to a wholesale coffee distribution business. The Dobbs’s have designs for further expansion and are planning a Freedom of Espresso near the Syracuse University campus, a block away from where a Starbucks resides, “we’re going after them now,” Ms. Dobb’s says proudly.

But if an independent coffee shop just expands outwardly when the owners have the resources isn’t that the same as Starbucks only with fewer resources? Isn’t this another example of the kill-or-be-killed nature of the coffee business and of business in general?


Across the street: I reach for the handle of a black metallic door and pull it open. I am greeted by the sounds of world music playing from, well, everywhere. I sidestep several people on my way to the line. I arrive at the counter and a well kept gentleman in his early twenties takes my order. He is wearing a green apron that matches that of his coworker. He retrieves my perfectly square Marshmallow Treat, hands me my change and receipt and tells me that I should step down to where my drink is being made. At the end of the counter, my Chai Latte is ready for me. I sit down on a plush, leather couch and U2 Twilight comes over the sound system. I think of the hundreds of thousands of Starbucks costumers across the country that will be hearing Bono’s voice today as I take my first sip of tea.

In November of 1999, Seattle hosted the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference. Ministers and dignitaries from well over 100 countries gathered in Seattle to discuss an agenda that included, agricultural agreements, textiles and clothing, and intellectual property rights, as well as myriad other issues. The purpose was to lower trade barriers and to further the globalization of the economy as the world approached the 21st century.

The conference also brought together a collection of individuals opposed to the actions and intentions of the WTO. Thousands of protestors lined the streets in what the San Francisco Chronicle would call “one of the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in U.S. history, a mix of carnival, peaceful rally and riot.” The protesters barricaded entrances to buildings, blockaded intersections, marched on the streets, and some looted local stores. Windows were broken, storefronts graphitized and police cars overturned. Of the many chain stores that suffered the wrath of the protesters, Starbucks received some of the harshest treatment. The aggression of the protesters even caused the franchise to close its downtown locations for the second day of the conference. Many of the organizations involved in the protest objected to the vandalism of property, however, the protests did disrupt the conference enough to halt formal negotiations until the conference reconvened in Doha, Qatar in 2001.

How did a coffee store become the target of angry protesters given to the destruction of corporate retailers? Why was a coffee shop even a concern of protesters opposed to globalization? What is the difference between Starbucks and the corner coffee shop and why did it matter? After all it’s just coffee right?

Wrong. Sort of.

In August of 1987, two months after Ronald Reagan delivered the words “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Howard Schultz a 34-year-old businessman from Brooklyn, New York inked a deal to purchase a small chain of coffee houses named Starbucks which had opened in 1971.

Schultz first encountered the coffee house six years prior while working for a Swedish kitchen equipment supplier. He had noticed an unusually large number of orders from a Seattle company for a drip coffeemaker and decided to investigate. His investigation led him to the discovery of a company devoted to the sale of gourmet coffee beans and brewing and roasting accessories. After meeting with the owners and surveying the company, Schultz was so impressed with the potential of Starbucks that he pursued a position as head of marketing despite a marked pay cut from his position in New York.

The partners, one a former English teacher and the other a writer, were initially weary of Schultz’s advances. They had initially opened Starbucks due to their love of superior quality coffee and while Schultz had shown a great deal of enthusiasm for the potential of the brand they feared his excitement would clash with the existing culture of Starbucks. After much prodding Schultz was able to convince the partners that he was committed to facilitating their vision for Starbucks, not imposing his own.

In 1982, Schultz was hired as the head of marketing for Starbucks. Shortly thereafter, during a trade show in Milan, Schultz discovered the Italian café culture and thought it to be a perfect fit for the burgeoning bean business Starbucks was doing in the states.

However, again Starbucks’ owners did not share Schultz’s vision. They did not have any interest in expanding into the restaurant business and were skeptical of its viability.

So Schultz went out on his own opening Il Giornale (“the daily” – the name of an Italian newspaper) and testing his gourmet coffee bean crossed with Italian café concept. Il Giornale was an instant success and by the summer of 1987, Schultz was thinking bigger than ever when an opportunity he couldn’t resist was made available.

Starbucks owners were ready to focus on other ventures and wanted to sell. At the time, Starbucks had six stores to Il Giornale’s three but Schultz was able to raise nearly $4 million dollars on the strength of his pitch to investors, which included opening an additional 125 Starbucks over the next five years.

In his book, titled “Pour Your Heart into It,” Schultz explains his vision:

“We would go public, someday. Customers would respect our brand so much that they would talk of “a cup of Starbucks.”

“But my view of a successful business wasn’t just measured in number of stores. I wanted to create a brand name respected for the best coffee and a well-run company admired for its corporate responsibility. I wanted to elevate the enterprise to a higher standard, to make our people proud of working for a company that cared for them and gave back to their community”

Starbucks not only met the goal of opening 125 stores, it exceeded it, opening 165 stores in the five years following the purchase. The store was a runaway hit and at a time when the overall consumption of coffee, having trended down for decades, was starting on an upswing.

Over the next decade and a half, Starbucks became the dominant coffee house throughout the country even surpassing Burger King in store quantity. Starbucks came to export its brand of coffee, cappuccino, espresso, and eventually music and literature, in fact its culture to cities big and small. In turn, a backlash has arisen in opposition to the Starbucks culture. Individuals decry the loss of local culture, the commoditization of the coffee house experience and claim foul business practices on the part of the corporation.

The debate amongst coffee lovers has taken shape along absolutist lines. Either for Starbucks or against. Most purists have rallied against the corporate monolith (that as of publication had nearly 9,000 stores in the U.S. alone), with such arguments as those of the purveyor of - the number one return for both “hate Starbucks” and “love Starbucks,” on the Yahoo search engine – where the top ten reasons for hating Starbucks are listed.

But lost in the passions of the coffee argument are the statistics of coffee consumption. A study done by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, found that since 2002, daily specialty coffee consumption by American adults has risen from 12% of the population to 16% at the end of 2006. Occasional specialty coffee consumption amongst the adult population has gone from a low of 54% of the population in 2003, to 63% at the end of 2006. The amount of specialty coffee vendors has risen from 15,400 in 2002 to 23,900 in 2006 and the percentage of chain stores makes up only 40% of the overall marketplace. Further, overall daily consumption of coffee is up to 57% of American’s from 49% in 2004.

“Starbucks has been responsible for opening the world’s eyes and revealing the magic of the coffee bean to the public,” Theodore Erski, the “coffee novelist,” and professor of The Geography of Coffee at McHenry County College outside of Chicago said. He believes that Starbucks was instrumental in the stimulation of the marketplace but is ambivalent about its current form and does not care for its taste (which he says is over roasted). “Even though Starbucks is opening our eyes, it is also homogenizing the coffee experience so it’s a sum loss.”

The Last Drop

Ashley Moench, a manager at Freedom of Espresso and former employee at Nancy’s Coffee Café (a now defunct chain that Moench refers to as “corporate”), also believes that the coffee at Starbucks has a burnt taste. Yet, her distaste for Starbucks and corporate coffee houses in general runs deeper.

“When you work for a corporate, you have the manager who does the ordering, and then takes orders from the general manager who comes into the store like once or twice a week. But you have a lot more say and a lot more responsibility in a place like this so it makes you feel like you’re actually important. More so than you would feel if you were just working for some giant machine.”

Freedom of Espresso has 14 employees, 8 of whom have left at various points but have subsequently returned. The company also prominently displays the artistic works of Moench and her co-worker Thaddeus Chapman.

Further, the Dobbs insist that their first priority is maintaining the high quality of their product. When asked about the possibility of compromising the quality of their coffee as they expand, Ms. Dobbs dismissed it, saying “we roast every other day, we’re still just going to be five stores and then we’re going to focus on doing our bakery out in Fayetteville…We’re just trying to build a nice tight circle that we can service and keep the quality up on.” Ms. Dobbs also said that her and Mr. Dobbs receive offers from building and mall developers “everyday,” but are not entertaining any more offers at this point.

But Starbucks certainly still is, and Ms. Dobbs rejects the argument that Starbucks has created the market for high end coffee. Ms. Dobbs’ family is originally from the Central New York area and prior to returning, she and Mr. Dobbs lived together in Alaska (the two were married at this point). She says that during trips back to the Syracuse area in the early 90’s they couldn’t get a cup of high end coffee anywhere in the area which is part of the reason they decided to move back and begin Freedom of Espresso. “We pioneered the market here,” Ms. Dobbs said.

Adam Williams, the co-owner of Recess, a single entity coffee establishment across town from Freedom of Espresso/Starbucks feud, was somewhat less emphatic. “They probably have helped the market, they definitely opened the door to people wanting more complex, high end coffee drinks.” Williams even suggested that Starbucks has helped make gourmet coffee trendy, which has helped the market for high-end coffee retailers.

Erski shared Williams’s sentiment. Starbucks helped make coffee “cool and hip, not just something your father drank in the morning to get going” Erski said.

The concept is not peculiar to coffee aficionados. “(Starbucks) has a brilliant understanding of the cultural significance of branding and corporate behavior…brands are owned by the consumer not the corporation,” said Carla Lloyd a professor of advertising at Syracuse University. Lloyd believes that Starbucks has an understanding of the desires of their customers, which has allowed them to create an atmosphere that is accommodating without seeming inauthentic.

Bridget Baker, a Starbucks representative did not comment on the matter of Starbucks’ positive impact on independent coffee houses but did say that Starbucks does not attempt to put stores where independent coffee shops already are. “We put our stores where customers want and expect us to be,” Baxter said, then reiterated several minutes later, word for word. When asked why Starbucks might build a store in a location that does not have Starbucks, and therefore would not have any customers, Baker replied that with Starbucks in grocery stores and in other cities, there are now Starbucks customers everywhere.

In the penultimate paragraph of his memo Howard Schultz wrote, “I have said for 20 years that our success is not an entitlement and now it's proving to be a reality. Let's be smarter about how we are spending our time, money and resources. Let's get back to the core. Push for innovation and do the things necessary to once again differentiate Starbucks from all others.”

The ability of Starbucks to differentiate from “all others” is unlikely considering the omnipotence of the coffee house. Schultz and Starbucks can speak to individuality but many people today prefer consistency to individuality. The market place has changed from the days of the Reagan ‘80’s and will likely continue to change moving forward. While the growth of the Starbucks monolith may seem disheartening to some, the growth of the giant has in the past and will continue to increase the size of its prey.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Death of Hair Metal

I missed Friday's Jeopardy due to a scheduling problem (I had scheduled to be drunk watching the Yankee game and the local Jeopardy affiliate refused to change our appointment), so I was shocked to see Sebastian Bach back, defending his two day crown. He didn't fair particularly well today, losing to a man who seems to take his stylistic inspiration from the characters of Fraggle Rock, but apparently he aspires to take his winnings and pursue a math degree at Va. Tech. A noble goal, an one that will hopefully allow him to avoid the financial demise associated with many members of the hair metal industry.

Couple other things:

If you've completed watching Saturday's Super Size Me (with Whiskey!) post, you may enjoy this New Yorker article, on the existential divide within the Republican party. But only if you've finished watching Super Size Me (with Whiskey!). Dinner first, then dessert.

Also, it's a bit late but I wanted to mention Lebron's performance on Thursday evening. After seeing that, if you wanna crown him then crown his ass. Magnificent.

And regarding the Sopranos, that was one of the most intense hours of (fictional) television I have ever witnessed. Great television. One thing I noted in particular was the display of collateral damage that Chase chose to incorporate into the episode. The mishandled attempt on Phil's life is the obvious example (which I think also served to highlight the drastic differences in competency between New York and Jersey) but the motorcyclist getting run over during the hit on Sil is the example that really drove home the point. On the face of it, that scene is entirely gratuitous, however Chase and co. do not engage in gratuitous violence nor do they pander to an audience. That scene (and many other scenes throughout the series) was included to remind the viewers that it is not only those associated with mob activities that suffer from its violence and ruthlessness. Excellent scene, excellent episode, wonderful show, it will be missed.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Super-Size Me (With Whiskey!)

This is remarkably funny. It's from a comedy group called the Whitest Kids U Know ( ). I'm gonna go have a drink.