Hard News by Russell Brown

Coffee and culture

Somebody served me a long black without a crema last week. In Wellington. The café had everything else: nice décor, convivial company, Cafenet connectivity, that capital city buzz. But no crema. Certainly, I am a bit of a nut about this sort of thing. I am currently sipping a home-made espresso that is of superior quality to what I could buy at 95 out of 100 Auckland cafes: intense, complex, with a touch of sweetness. And a big, fat fuck-off crema.

Stilll, there's always L'affare and The Astoria (although the last time I was at the latter, it was well past coffee time and someone was filling me full of wine and political gossip). And it could be London, where according to Nick Smith's interesting Listener story on New Zealanders in London you still can't get a decent coffee in the old town, excepting that you visit a New Zealand-run establishment. Testify. I went back to London for the first time in a decade several years ago (I lived there for five years) and made a beeline for Bar Italia in Soho, which had once seemed to me to be coffee central. It was horrible. The long black was thin and when I tried a milky coffee next it bordered on the incompetent. On the whole trip, the only decent coffee I found was in one place in Amsterdam, and it cost the equivalent of $NZ6.

I fear that we have established a certain domestic coffee culture and simply expected the world to follow. I occasionally swing by for a chat with Derek Townsend of our partners in crime, Karajoz, and he points out that the Italians make a very different espresso: sharper, more bitter and always with sugar. Derek seems to spend half his year on international coffee reconnaissance, so he clearly knows, but it still seems wrong to me.

Anyway, Wellington. I was down on Thursday for the conference to launch the Council for the Humanities, and gave a presentation revolving around what we do at Public Address. I was surprised to discover what a gulf there was between the Internet culture we inhabit and the world of these clever academics, but the audience was certainly receptive to what I was saying.

I enjoyed hearing Moana Jackson, who gave the most convincing argument I have heard for the distinctiveness of a Maori intellectual tradition and "way of knowing" but I'd like to interview him some time about his plans for engagement. Walking backwards into the future is all very well, but surely one of the most impressive things about some of the Maori leaders in the years following contact with Europe was their boldness and intellectual curiousity. My Internet culture (I spoke a little bit about layers of cultural identity: Tze Ming framing a debate between two young Chinese New Zealanders as Worf versus Tuvok seemed to strike a chord) tells me that an open system prospers and a closed system withers.

Afterwards, someone asked me what "institution" I was associated with (heh), I dined with the celebrated Australian historian Ian Donaldson (a lovely man) and someone else suggested I was unfairly bagging Te Ara. I don't really mean to - it's a laudable project - but I do strongly believe that some part of the official online cultural presence has to get out of monologue mode and if it's not Te Ara, then it needs to be something else. If it ever was, culture and heritage is no longer something practiced by experts while the rest of us keep ourselves busy.

Last week was conference time in Wellington. Had I been able to spare the time, I'd have done something for the National Digital Forum, but family duties didn't permit. Synthetic Thoughts got down there and has an informative post on archiving issues and enhancements to the national metadata discovery portal, Matapihi.

Ben Metcalfe assesses the potential hackability of the Xbox 360 and declares it to be "tighter than a nun's arse". He also covers a Firefox extension that pretty much qualifies as a work of evil.

As intriguing new evidence - the longest ice-core record ever obtained - lends even more weight to climate-change models, the US tries to sabotage work towards future carbon commitments. I guess that even if it takes 20 years to make these people perceive reality, that's a blip in the long picture, but I do marvel at the intellectual dishonesty here. Anyway, OneGoodMove has some great clips from the Earth to America Global Warming Comedy Special: Larry David, Robin Williams, Bill Maher and the truly amazing Blue Man Group.

AmericaBlog dubbed these people the American Taliban. That's hyperbolic, but not entirely inaccurate. Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools have a list of books they want banned from American schools. This list includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (sample passage deemed injurious to young people: "...the plump brown face had been deflated and patted flat like a cow's ordurous dropping"). It would be funny if they weren't apparently serious.

Things not going well at the Trial of the Century. And likely to get worse with the arrival of former US attorney general Ramsey Clark on the defence side.

And finally: next year will see the market arrival of holographic storage. Maxell will be making DVD-sized discs that hold 300GB (that's, like, a day of hi-def video) and is tracking towards 1.6 terabyte removable discs in five years' time (that's the Library of Congress on six discs), with unprecedented transfer rates. Freaky. Wikipedia backgrounder here and Slashdot thread here.