Monthly Archives: March 2010

Brewin’ Up A Storm: instant adventures with coffee

It was a busy morning. The early start was for a coffee tasting, organised for the launch of Starbucks’ Via. Or VIA TM, as their branding has it. (The capitals make it look like an acronym: it could be an army, the military wing of Caffeine Anonymous… Or maybe a sixth-generation cash machine? Or maybe a piece Viagra spam… And whilst we’re on branding, where’s the apostrophe in Starbuck’s gone?)

I haven’t written about food and drink here before, but I was as interested in the process of the launch as the product, and since my invitation stemmed from my occasional attendance at Tuttle – which features a lot of coffee – this does seem an appropriate place to discuss it.

I had in mind that whilst I have been to wine and whisky tastings – often – I hadn’t been to a coffee tasting before. But afterwards, I remembered an espresso tasting I once went to at Valvona & Crolla. It was a very reverent affair, with great care taken to produce the coffee.

I like coffee; I can be quite particular about it, and neither Starbucks nor instant coffee are my preferred beverage. I was upfront about this – and the team from Starbucks were very gracious as they tried to explain why their cappuccinos (or is it “cappuccini”?) were actually better than Pret à Manger’s. (I wasn’t convinced…) They were well-informed and informative, happy to talk about coffee at length with evangelistic vigour.

They explained why VIA TM is different from all other instant coffee (as well as not being freeze dried but spun-dried instead, they also include some microground coffee in the mix, so that there is real coffee in there ,too). There was also a bit of psychology about how our other senses influence what we taste – they have created a piece of music which is apparently meant to go well with coffee… (This may sound like pseudo-science – there is indeed an equation created by Prof Charles Spence [sponsored by Starbucks, of course…] detailing how to “achieve the most enjoyable coffee moment” – it requires coffee, environment, other people and time, apparently – but the environment clearly does play a part in our appreciation of food and drink: how much time we can give to enjoyment, how relaxed we are, how comfortable we are all play a role, I’d say.)

That said, the coffee was very good: in a blind tasting, I couldn’t identify which was VIA TM and which was Starbucks’ filter coffee.

I’m not sure what the market for VIA TM will actually be, though. Whilst much better than other instant coffee, and cheaper than , it isn’t cheap – about 38p a time: less than your typical tall skinny latte but rather more than other instant coffee.

For me, there is a certain amount of ritual to drinking coffee. If I’m at home or at work, it is an opportunity to take a break, to withdraw somewhat and contemplate; if I’m out in a coffee bar, a slightly more indulgent break; if I’m with other people, it is about the conversation. None of these times is begging for an instant coffee. Coffee takes time – it is a slow event, to be savoured. It isn’t instant – it is worth waiting for.

I can see two sets of circumstances where VIA TM would work for me: in hotels, instead of those nasty little sachets of Nescafe (which never taste right); and – seriously – when I am out in the hills. I’m going to the Highlands in May, and I might just take a few sachets of VIA TM with me. We’ll see…

An Inordinate Fondness for Learning: building a taxonomy

I have been meaning for a while to write about one of the more interesting projects I’ve had; and a conversation I had last week with Janet Davies has finally prompted me to do.

We were talking about different ways of classifying things – documents and information, largely, but also – because of my background – plants.

This is everyday stuff for Janet, but it took me back five years or so when I was tasked to develop the classification – the taxonomy for the implementation of a new learning management system in a large bank.

The purpose of classifying each piece of learning (or learning object – it could be a book, a video, part of an online learning programme, a weblink – or a multiple of any of these) – was to help people find the bits of learning they needed for their role, and to help them plan their own development. Surprisingly, evidence showed most people liked to browse categories rather than search for what they wanted. The taxonomy provided the categories people could browse in.

Developing this taxonomy wasn’t the usual sort of project we worked on, and the programme specifically looked for someone who thought about things with a different perspective. They got me…

Whilst I was working in learning, I had a different background to many of my colleagues: for one thing I had a spent some years studying botany, and that included a fair bit of botanical classification. My view of classification was therefore formed through plant taxonomy and systematics, at a very fundamental level: I believed that the classification at a very fundamental, intrinsic level needed to make sense: it needed to be “natural”, to exist outside my creation of it. It should reflect the state of things.

When I have spoken to professional information managers – particularly librarians – they haven’t got this at all. Of course, the classification couldn’t exist outside of my creation of it – it didn’t exist before I startedmaking it. The desire for a “natural classification” stemmed completely from a biologists view of systematics, where organisms fall into related categories (albeit with some fuzziness around the edges). Whilst one knows through experience what organisms are related to others – what are monocot or dicot plants, or which animals are reptiles and which are mammals – there is also a lot of fuzziness, and there are long, erudite debates as to where specific organisms should fit. There are many ways to classify plants, say: by the shape of their leaves, by the form of their stem, by the colour of their flowers; but it doesn’t take a plant taxonomist to know that yellow roses are more closely related to red roses than they are to daffodils.

(Incidentally, there is a fascinating phylogentic tree in the window of the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, showing the relationships between organisms in relation to, I believe, their numbers; what we think of as life on our planet – the plants and animals we are familar with – form the smallest part of this image, hugely outnumbered by the the various protists, prokaryotes and other life forms. We are biased towards organisms built on a similar scale to ourselves. God may have had an inordinate fondness for beetles, but he must have been absolutely crazy about bacteria and archaea. This one similarly emphasises plants’ and animals’ lack of importantance – they’re the single branches Chlorophyta and Animalia, respectively.)

Phylogenetic tree Used under Creative Commons licence

Within the learning taxonomy I was tasked with developing, there were no natural characteristics – the learning was only defined by our relationship to it: by our definition of it. But it was important that the classification held together outside of my construct of it. For instance, it would have been possibly – and very easy – to classify each piece of learning according to which bit of the organisation used it, but this was temporary: like most large organisations, the structure of this one changed frequently, and classifying learning in accordance with the organisation structure would have required frequent revisions. It would also have limited the accessibilty of learning objects: if they were seen to be classified as if belonging to one part of the organisation, others wouldn’t want to use them.

This was very counter-cultural, and went against the power-politics in the bank. Different parts of the organisation believed that they were more important than others, and should own more bits of learning. After I had finished my design work and moved on to other projects, the head of learning gave in to one division’s demand that the learning their staff used should be classified according their organisation structure. Two weeks later, this division was reorganised and merged with another, making a mockery of their revised classification, and making me feel smug and vindicated.

Designing the learning taxonomy was a complex task. There were tens of thousands of learning objects to classify, and each had to fit somewhere. The highest level of the classification had been agreed before I was brought into the project – there were seven key categories – but below each of those it was quite literally a blank sheet of paper.

That is what I started with: a blank sheet of paper. I drew mindmaps reflecting our knowledge about each of the major classifications, going deeper and deeper down. (I think the deepest level was six down – so each major category could have five layers of subcategory below it.) [And, as a prompt to myself, I really must write a post about mindmaps sometime…!]

I perceived each category or subcategory in two ways. Firstly, as a “bucket” into which learning could be placed – somewhere to hold the learning relative to other pieces of learning, where the relationships held together in a cohesive way. Secondly, as the “chapter headings” we would expect to see in a book about each topic: if someone were writing an overview of a particular subject, what would their chapter and section headings be?

Moving from one level down to the next creates the breadcrumb trail with which you’re probably familiar – most websites display their breadcrumb trail.

This was a one-off process: we wanted to make the classification as future proof as possible. Whilst every piece of learning had to be classified, there might be some classifications which would end up without any learning being assigned to them. For instance, the organisation functioned internationally, so there was one part of the taxonomy that featured foreign languages and culture. The subcategories in this section included major languages for countries in which we didn’t operate but where we might aspire to. It didn’t include every language in the world, though – nor even every country: just those that represented potential significant markets.

It was a major piece of work. The classification had nearly 2,000 different categories. (OK, 1,940, if you’re being picky…) All in all, it took several months. Once the classification had been developed, I had to classify each of those tens of thousands of learning objects, and then I had to teach the organisation’s learning consultants how to classify the new bits of learning they were developing. Quite quickly, by nature of my involvement, I became the bank’s resident expert on learning classification.

It was also never going to be finished: the classification would evolve as our understanding of learning – and the organisation – improved.

I loved this project. It had the intellectual fascination to keep me interested, and I learned so much about so many different subjects as I was doing it. It was also quite lonely – I worked largely on my own, with very limited collaboration; not my preferred status.

It wasn’t perfect – far from it. The project – indeed, the whole LMS implementation – was borne out of a need or desire to control. There was no space for a folksonomy: this was a top-down, centralised process.

But I did draw some lovely mindmaps…

Connected: It’s Contagious

The poster for the film “The Crazies” has the strapline “Insanity Is Infectious”; Nicholas Christakis argued last week at the RSA that indeed it might – along with many other social phenomena.

He was in London to plug his book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, and he discussed how he’d arrived at his main idea – that many things in our lives are socially mediated, including depression, stress, obesity, emotions, and death – and what it might mean for society.

Christakis said first came up with the idea of investigating the effects our social networks when studying the “widow effect” – that partners in a relationship often die soon after each other. He found that those at some remove also suffer stress (he came across this when a friend of the partner of someone whose parent had a terminal disease said they were concerned: the ripple of stress spread out to “three degrees of separation”).

He started to investigate social networks, and found a lot of different phenomena were mediated through networks. Most famously, his analysis of obesity showed that having obese friends increases the likelihood of your being obese by up to 45%, and this too is effective at up to three degrees of separation – that is, if your friend’s friend’s friend is obese, you are more likely to be obese.

There might be lots of reasons for this – you might all drink in the pub together, or hang out in the same fast food joints, or live in the same gym-free neighbourhood, or …


We are social beings: we are influenced by our friends and their behaviour, and vice versa.

Christakis also demonstrated that emotions also spread contagiously, and postulated that there was an evolutionary benefit to this, going so far as suggesting that we are adapted to networks. He reckoned that 40% of our network structure was down to genetic influence – that is, the number of friends or contacts we have, and the closeness of those contacts, is partly under genetic control. (Spoiler: theories suggesting evolutionary benefits of social adaptations are notoriously tricky and more or less impossible to prove: they might be neat ideas, but they are not particularly scientific…)

He reckoned our social networks influence the following behaviours and emotions:

  • smoking
  • obesity
  • drinking
  • drug use
  • happiness
  • depression
  • loneliness
  • altruism
  • voting
  • innovation

That is quite a broad list, though it is possible to see the social side to most these points. Christakis described this as “a connected life”.

It was interesting, but it actually seemed a lot too neatly tied up. Life seems more rough and unregulated than Christakis described. Much of his work has been done in closed networks, if only to be able to map and measure all the connections. Educational institutions seemed to be common networks to work in. He showed network maps (like the one above – a map of my Facebook network, created by Touchgraph); in closed networks, the people at the periphery look like lonely souls, but of course no network is closed: those people have friends and connections outside, in other networks. These weren’t taken account of.

The book may answer some of my unease – I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say. I think there are a lot of implications in how we manage communications and develop policy: in answer to questions, Christakis said it might be more effective to target policy on specific nodes – people – in a network in order to reduce, say, drug taking rather than everybody in the network. These poeple sound a lot like the mavens described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point – those individuals who are key to spreading new ideas, just as there are carriers responsible for spreading infectious diseases.