Coffee vs. Alcohol: A better brew?

February 28, 2011

Almost everyone enjoys a good brew, but some brews are more acceptable than others, it seems. Around the world, coffee consumption has far outstripped that of alcoholic beverages, with around 2.9 pounds (or around 30 litres) of coffee consumed per person, on average, in one year. Compared with an average consumption of 5 litres per person, per year of alcohol worldwide, it seems we are much more inclined to be hitting a Starbucks than a bar on an average day.

Global average alcohol consumption

Global average alcohol consumption

Coffee is also a critically important trading commodity, second only to oil in terms of dollar value globally. I won’t get into the cultural influence of Starbucks, Tim Hortons and the like, but the impact on consumers and on the business world has been significant – much more so than any individual brand of alcohol in recent history.

Coffee is a relatively modern beverage. There is no Greek god of coffee, like there is of wine (though if there were, no doubt he would be a very spirited half-child of Zeus who enjoyed bold flavours, waking up early, and being chipper). The first evidence of coffee drinking as we know it today is generally placed in the fifteenth-century Middle East. Evidence of wine and beer consumption, in contrast, dates to 6000 BC and 9500 BC, respectively, or even earlier. Yet for such a young contender, coffee’s rise in popularity has been impressive.

No doubt in part this rise in Europe related to the appeal of the exotic, like the chocolate and other goods that originated in Turkey or other Arab countries. It is also likely that, like sugar, coffee was just tasty and appealing in its own right, and those who tried it liked it and wanted more. And certainly there is the social aspect, the rise of coffeehouse culture across France and Britain in the eighteenth century, which brought together politics, business and social interaction in a public forum as never before. The purported offspring of the coffeehouses, such as the stock market, French Enlightenment ideals, and even democracy, were significant. In a TED talk I watched recently, author Steven Johnson slyly remarked that the English Renaissance was curiously closely tied to the changeover from imbibing large amounts of depressants to large amounts of stimulants with the rise of the coffeehouse (go figure).

The best part of waking up?

Today, it seems that coffee has generally been linked to a host of other caffeinated beverages that are considered “good” (such as tea and cola) and alcohol has been linked with commodities that are “bad” and “unhealthy” (such as drugs and cigarettes). Why? Perhaps it is because colas, tea and coffee are unregulated, entirely legal, and (to a point) even considered safe for children, while the opposite can be said of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

Is the association fair? Hardly. While the dangers of addiction may be greater for the latter group, and public drunkenness more severely chastised than public hyperactivity, coffee and sugary colas (as fantastic as they are) are hardly the healthiest choices of beverages.

I suspect it is something else, something in the inherent nature or promotion of coffee that makes it seem less threatening than alcohol. Coffee suffers from none of the religious ordinances forbidding its consumption the way alcohol does (though, interestingly, coffee was also banned in several Islamic countries in its early years). Is has also never endured the smug wrath of teetotalers or wholesale prohibition.

Alcohol is generally placed into the realms of evenings and night-times, bars, and sexy movies, while coffee is the drink of busy weekday mornings, weekends with the paper, and businesspeople. Both are oriented toward adults, but coffee is in some ways more socially acceptable. Consider the difference between remarking that you just can’t get started in the morning without your coffee versus saying the same about your morning shot of whiskey. Similarly, asking someone out for a drink connotes much more serious intentions than asking someone for a coffee. And vendors are catching on: in Britain, many pubs are weathering the downturn in business caused by the recession and changing attitudes by tapping into the morning market of coffee drinkers.

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (courtesy of ChartsBin)

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (graphic courtesy of ChartsBin)

I wonder if the trend toward increased coffee consumption is in place of alcohol. I also wonder if it mirrors the general cultural shift toward an American orientation. The global dominance of Starbucks and other coffee shops seem to me to be supplanting the role of the local pub or licensed hang outs of the old world with a chirpy kind of Americanism and a whole new roster of bastardized European terms and ideas like “caramelo” and “frappuccino.” The New York Times backs up the idea of American dominance, noting that the U.S. makes up 25% of global coffee consumption and was a primary instigator of the takeover of coffee shop chains. Yet coffee is also extremely popular in Europe (especially in Scandinavia, as fans of Stieg Larsson would be unsurprised to discover) and even Japan.

Is this another case of American cultural colonialism, whereby traditions from Europe are adopted, commercialized, and re-sold to captive populations who want to tap into small piece of American corporate and social culture? Or is the global interest in coffee indifferent to American opinion?

Reading the tea leaves (coffee grinds?) to tell the future of consumption

Will coffee culture continue to increase in popularity, eventually supplanting the role of alcohol in social meetings? Two factors are worth considering here. The first is that while demand for alcoholic beverages in the developed world is shrinking, there is a growing interest in all kinds of alcohol (and especially wine) in emerging markets. Take, for instance, the rise of wine as a drink of choice and status symbol in China and Hong Kong as expendable incomes have grown. A similarly proportioned increase in coffee consumption there could be monumental – will it occur?

The second factor is the great cost of producing coffee. Putting aside the fact that most coffee is produced in comparatively poorer countries than those that refine, sell, and consume the finished product, the environmental cost is staggering. Waterfootprint asserts that for every 1 cup of coffee, 141 litres of water are required (mostly at the growing stage). Compare this figure with 75 litres for one similarly sized glass of beer and 120 litres for the average glass of wine and it would seem that a rise in coffee culture at the expense of alcohol could be disastrous for the environment.

Do the above statistics figure largely in the minds of those who drink any of the above beverages? Likely not. But all might – and likely will – in time affect production, and the economics of supply and demand will come into play, changing the equation once more and making it even harder to determine which is the better brew.

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I’ll Take ‘The Obsolescence of Trivia’ for $500, Please

February 15, 2011

I once heard that Albert Einstein didn’t know his own phone number, because he never bothered to memorize anything that could be written down or looked up in less than two minutes. Even for someone like me, who always prided herself on being able to remember things, from trivia to birthdays to obscure historical facts (before my memory became a sieve, that is), such a thoughtful approach to using one’s brain seemed incredibly intelligent. Theoretically, all the space that was freed by not having to remember pedestrian things like one’s telephone number could be put to use coming up with, say, the Theory of Relativity and blueprints for the atomic bomb. What an efficient use of that magic 10% of our brain power.

I wonder what Einstein would have done with the Internet.

The ability to find almost any fact with a few clicks has to be one of the defining characteristics of our age. Case in point: I just verified the above story by searching for it online. It took about 4 seconds. I didn’t have to recall which book I’d read it in and then go searching for an hour through my Library of Congress-ordered bookshelves hoping the tome in question had an index so I could easily locate the passage I needed. I also didn’t have to think about who might have mentioned it to me and then look for his or her phone number and (horror!) call to ask about it.

The ability to search in this way is literally changing how our brains work. We have become “shallower” thinkers, who absorb less because we can find information so quickly and have our comprehension constantly interrupted with new information being presented to us (for example, by blue underlined links in a body of text). Things like Wikipedia have made us more able to find information easily, but are we less able to process it?

"Watson" tries to beat Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

"Watson" tries to beat Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but can't respond to context

It could be that knowledge easily acquired has less likelihood of being retained. (Of course, it may be that I notice this because though I get older and learn much more rapidly, I also forget more rapidly than I did when I was young.) Instead of coming up with ways to store knowledge in our long-term memory, we are becoming adept at determining how to find it in the external world. Instead of savouring text or indulging in slow reading, as I wrote about in my last post, we skim, knowing we can go back later if we need to find something. Knowledge is largely transactional, facts over tone or style. A tradition similar to that of Islam, that followers should be able to memorize and recite the Qur’an, would be unlikely to take off if established today, it seems. Most of us can barely get through an article.

University administrators are talking about fundamentally changing the way information is taught in schools. What is the point of spending a few hours a week standing in a lecture format imparting facts, when facts can be discovered within seconds? Even if professors are teaching a way of analyzing facts, this too can be discovered in the form of lesson plans, course outlines, and sample teaching schedules for those so inclined to look for them. The kind of knowledge that students need today (one could argue, perhaps, that they have always needed) is of a much higher order and involves critical thinking as opposed to simple rote learning and memorization. Certainly, this appears to be one of the few arenas left in which computers can’t best us: an article on ars technica today reports that “Watson,” a computer created by IBM to compete against repeat Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter mostly knows the facts (by querying its own database) but not how to take other contestants’ wrong answers into account when preparing ‘his’ own.

It is certainly possible that our future will involve less fact recall. To an extent, however, it will always be necessary as a building block to learning (think: simple math, the alphabet), so we won’t lose it entirely. The real question is whether the change is good or bad, if the kind of thinking we’re doing instead is beneficial or detrimental.

It’s hard to put a value judgment on the change. One could make the case that, from an evolutionary perspective, being able to recall facts, such as where the highest-yield coconut trees were located or what time of year animals would be in a certain location, would be beneficial. This later transitioned into an affinity among many for trivia games and quizzes of all kinds.

But is this kind of knowledge as useful today, when it can so easily be obtained online? Are we missing the problem-solving and interpersonal skills associated with acquiring it? An article on Slate.com last week lamented the rise of the Internet because it made finding obscure treasures like minor league baseball hats too easy to find, without the letter writing, sleuthing and travel required to find such things in (in this case) the 1980s. Now we are limited only by what we can imagine – if we can think of it, it’s probably out there. So is the free space in our brain dedicated to imagining more of what is possible, and less of how we’ll find out about it? Or are we just getting lazy?

Time will likely tell. But will it be a human characteristic change, or merely a culture-specific one? Another thing to consider is that access to the Internet and its potentially game-changing brain alterations is anything but ubiquitous. Being able to find anything online depends on both access to technology and freedom of information. Granted, the study linked to above mentions that it takes only about 5 days to gain the brain activity of an old hand Internet searcher. But no doubt some of the more profound changes to our neural pathways will evolve more slowly, with repeated exposure. Will the unconnected, firewalled world catch up in time?

Perhaps we’ll be too busy watching computers best each other on Jeopardy! to notice.


Minimum Impact, Maximum Time, and the Goodness of Work

February 10, 2011

Is ambling antithetical to success? Is a life of purpose the only path to happiness? And is Gen Y really all that different from previous generations in wanting meaningful work?

On Marx, Meaning, and Materialism

I think often on Marx’s theory of alienation; namely, that under the capitalist system of increasing specialization, workers become alienated from the fruits of their labour, and from their own capacity as workers to work/produce things and grow in doing so. Instead of seeing work as an end in itself, and gaining feelings of fulfilment from seeing the fruit of one’s labour go from raw materials to completed items, according to Marx work had become but a means to an end as workers were increasingly slotted into automated lines of production. Instead of creating the whole shoe, they would nail in a piece of the sole, as it were, with no satisfaction in seeing the “end-to-end process” (as we might say in today’s corporatenewspeak).

Certainly, with the rise of the industrialization, Fordist assembly lines and globalization, the idea of work as a means to an end gained popularity as a way to describe life in the twentieth century. And in some ways, this was acceptable. In the 1930s, one was fortunate to have a job at all – any job. One did not pick and choose. The generation after that (those ubiquitous Boomers) observed their parents’ work ethic and adopted it without thinking, as a means to gain material prosperity. Nice cars, big houses, creature comforts, holidays in Boca Raton, and well-educated children became status symbols, ends worth working for. A life of middle management drudgery and rarely seeing one’s children was, for many, an acceptable trade-off.

But we expect so much more from our work today. Making a living, and a living that will support the lifestyle we’re used to, is mere “table stakes” (more corporatenewspeak). Because, with good education and attentive parenting and the opportunity to develop our skills as children, we have so many options for a career. Consequently, we expect much, much more out of the time we spend at work. (And before someone brings up 40% unemployment among global youth, yes, the recession has, to an extent, made Gen Ys a little less choosy – but only for now.)

The theory of work as an end in itself – and a means to happiness and fulfilment – has important research to back it up. A study out of California a few years ago remarked on the importance of hard work and purpose in achieving happiness in life. The conclusion is worth quoting at length:

A central presumption of the ‘‘American dream’’ is that, through their own efforts and hard work, people may move towards greater happiness and fulfillment in life. This assumption is echoed in the writings of philosophers, both ancient and modern. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (1985) proposed that happiness involves engagement in activities that promote one’s highest potentials. And, in the Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell (1930/1975) argued that the secrets to happiness include enterprise, exploration of one’s interests, and the overcoming of obstacles. …Our data suggest that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness.

Wow. Good work, it seems, is the answer to all our problems. The only thing left to do is find work that contains enough meaty, purposeful, interesting, content – related to our skills, of course, and with excellent “work-life balance” and good benefits – to meet our needs. Simple!

But is this expectation reasonable?

Really, it’s a wonder anybody finds jobs like this, let alone the majority of people. Even Marx’s (clearly idealized) autonomous, cottage industry shoe-makers (or soldiers, or second sons forced into trade…) no doubt achieved very little of this all-encompassing fulfilment through their work. Yet today we pile the expectations on our jobs. While there are certainly those out there who caution that work will not make anybody happy all on its own, the prevailing narrative remains that fulfilling work is the surest route to happiness. Consider: it’s just not socially acceptable for anyone able to participate in the “knowledge economy” to opt out and instead choose to make money solely as a means to an end with no other agenda – let alone anyone under 30. Do you know anyone? And do they want the situation to be permanent?

Minimizing Impact: Lowering our expectations? Or relieving the pressure?

While I was vacationing in the vineyards of Mendoza (rewards for a life of corporate drudgery?), I got to thinking meta thoughts about what people tend to expect from life. We use a lot of language today that revolves around impact. We want to “make a splash.” We long to stand out in interviews, on dates, and in applications. People everywhere seek to be famous for something (anything! Jersey Shore, anyone?) or to leave a legacy, something that will let current and future generations know they existed as individuals, and left something behind. Modern society refers to the more noble side of this feeling as the desire to change the world, whether through volunteering, winning a Nobel Prize or raising well-adjusted children. We have, as I have pointed out before, a strong bias to action which makes us want to do good and make things “better.” Most of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves, a vague kind of weight that is associated with the Victorian ideal of the innate goodness of work and the possibility of having a hand in making a better future. The idea of finding work that allows us to, as the above-quoted study notes, “promote [our] highest potentials,” is tied up in this pressure.

At the same time we are acutely aware that life is, as an honourary TED talk I watched recently put it, fragile and vulnerable – and short. (This fact creates a very un-Hobbesian empathy, the talk argued, not only for those with whom we share blood ties, but with other humans, other creatures, and the biosphere generally. Worth watching.) It is little wonder that, with the perception of the sand in the hourglass ever running out, we feel pressed for time, overwhelmed, and run off our feet. We try to make every moment count. We multi-task and are always tied to a communication device of some kind. Most things are done for a purpose: we educate ourselves in order to gain employment, money and “success”; we sleep and eat for our health; we watch our health to extend our lives (so we can keep doing it all longer). It has been often noted with bitter irony that with all the myriad time-saving devices we employ on a daily basis, we find ourselves busier than ever before. Trying to do things in the minimum amount of time has not made us happy.

So I decided to try an experiment in reverse-thinking. What if we sought to – even just for a day – minimize our impact, and maximize the amount of time we spent doing things? What would this look like? What does “counter-urgency” feel like in practice? Would it lessen the pressure?

Experiments in living “Slow

I suspect that it would in many ways resemble the slow movement, which has grown exponentially in popularity recently in response to the speed of life and destruction of the environment and local communities in the name of convenience. It must also be a response to the pressure of the purposeful life. The slow movement includes slow food, which is (in contrast to fast food) grown locally, often organically, and savoured. Slow reading is similar, and involves savouring text instead of skimming or summarizing, or any other kind of speed-reading I learned about in university.

A minimum-impact day would also result in fewer outputs (and here I use a very corporatenewspeak word deliberately). We would do purposeless things: ambling with no direction, daydreaming, journaling, writing poetry, reading fiction. There would be no book club to report to. No destination. Poetry, lyrics and plays could be memorized for the sake of the words themselves, lines savoured like chocolates instead of potential “gobbits” to drop into future conversations or be recalled on trivia nights.

Sadly, my brief experiment in slowly minimizing my impact was a failure: I wanted outputs. I wanted to write about it, to share it on this blog. I wanted to tie it into my life’s work and be fulfilled by it.

I sense I would not be unique in feeling this way. Is our desire for impact innate, or learned? Here we have contradictory evidence. An article in the Economist a few months ago referred to a study that concluded that the desire for good, hard work actually isn’t all that innate, particularly in Britain. But if learned, if part of the Marxist legacy we hold that says that fulfilling work is an end in itself, how do we handle the pressure of finding such fulfilment?

Perhaps the idea of work-as-end is a way to rationalize the short time we have on Earth, and that we spend most of it working. But are we destined not to find all we seek in our jobs? Is it possible to use work only as currency to “buy” time for our true passions? Should we seek to maximize the good in our work (whether employment at all, a means to material comfort and status, or even autonomous shoe-making) — even if we hate it? Do you amble purposelessly?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…