Personal Thursday: Chromebook Blather

Oct 16

Since it’s come up a few times on Twitter and people ask: Yep, I have a Chromebook. A bright teal HP Chromebook with a 16GB SSD and a Rapunzel sticker covering up the HP logo. In fact, my first non-rectangular sewing project was to make a nice slim bag to put it in.

It’s not my primary machine. As a lifelong computer addict who lives with a professional programmer/sysadmin, I have a tendency to collect and hoard electronics. My main machine is still my trusty Macbook Pro, followed by my homebuilt Windows 7 gaming box and my Windows 7 work laptop.

So with all that stuff lying around, why did I get the Chromebook? Well, my other machines were bought for power. But sometimes, you don’t want power. Sometimes you just want something to eff around on the internet with and maybe get some simple writing done. Sometimes you want a laptop where, if you break it or lose it or it gets stolen, you just go “damn” and deactivate it from accessing your Google account, instead of having a Very Bad Day. I snagged it for about two hundred on a Woot deal, and (like all HP Chromebooks) it comes with a moderate amount of free T-Mobile internets for life. I spend most of my laptop time in places with wifi, but knowing I have backup internets in case that doesn’t work out is nice.

What the hell is a Chromebook, you may be asking. Well, think of it like this — it’s a laptop that runs a web browser, and that’s all. Oh, there’s some apps and such, and they’re working on getting Android apps to run on it, but everything is based around the Chrome browser. The thing is, you can do a lot with just a web browser these days. Games, streaming video, writing, spreadsheets, etc etc etc blah blah blah. I have a ton of stuff open on my Macbook but what gets 75% of my time? Chrome. What gets the rest? Mostly my IM client and iTunes. And if I’m sitting at Starbucks, with an iPod for my music and Trillian for Web handling my IMs … yeah, I pretty much just need the browser. So the Chromebook works great for that.

If you’re wondering whether to get one, my advice is this — think very carefully about what you need it for and how you would use it. Try running your regular computer with nothing open but Chrome, and get everything done that you need to. Think about how often you are around wifi, and how much mobile data you might need. Figure out how much you would want to actually keep locally on the machine, instead of grabbing it from the internet. These things have very limited storage; you can get some extra with an SD card, but if you need to keep a ton of stuff handy for instant access it may not be enough.

Chromebooks are inexpensive, but a two hundred dollar laptop is only worth two hundred dollars if it does what you need it to. I could never use this as my main computer — no Skype, limited multi-client IM options, limited desktop-like apps, no Scrivener (what I wouldn’t give for cloud-based Scrivener!), none of the big video games I like to play, cheap-feeling keyboard, no place to put the tons of TV shows I’ve gotten from iTunes or the digital copies that came with some of my Blu-rays.

But when I just want to, oh let’s just say, sit at Starbucks typing up a quick Personal Thursday blog post with minimal distractions … it fits the bill pretty well.

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Learn to drink tea!

Sep 12

A little while ago I wrote about how to “learn” to drink coffee, and admitted that I didn’t originally like coffee. Some of you may have noticed that I mentioned I didn’t originally like tea, either. But I clearly drink it now! So what happened?

For years I was frustrated at how I couldn’t stand tea at all. It’s a cheap, healthy drink. You can stick a few tea bags in your purse and then all you need is hot water for a good beverage! All kinds of tea are recommended to help with colds, sore throats, etc. But every time I tried tea, I just couldn’t drink it. What was I doing wrong?

First of all, just like coffee, cheap tea will not help you like it. So ignore those boxes of tea bags your office has in the break room for free. Don’t bother with the nameless tea that comes out of the spout at your local fast food restaurant. You don’t need to spend top dollar on fancy tea but you should stay away from the super cheap stuff.

Second of all, don’t assume that you take your tea the same way you take your coffee. I always drink coffee with sweetener and cream, so I figured I needed that in tea too. I’d make a cup of tea, pour in sugar and milk, stir it up, take a sip, and just pour the rest out. It turns out, I like tea a lot better when I don’t add anything after brewing! At most, I add about a quarter teaspoon of sugar. So experiment with what you add to the tea and don’t be afraid to just drink it straight, even if you don’t drink coffee that way.

Third of all, brew it properly. You probably don’t need to be picky about the brewing temperature, but pay attention to the directions on the tea bag or box for how long it should be brewed. If there’s no directions, figure out what kind of tea it is (black, green, white, etc) and ask the internets how long it should be brewed. There’s usually a pretty good consensus.

So given that I was brewing cheap tea poorly and adding too much crap to it, how did I manage to learn to drink it properly? I used the same method I use on other people to teach them to drink coffee: start with sugary froufrou drinks and work your way down to the “real” stuff!

To be honest, my preferred chain retailer for this process isn’t Starbucks, it’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. And not just because I went through it while I was working in the same building as CBTL — in my experience, one should go to Starbucks for better coffee drinks and CBTL for better tea drinks. This may change now that Starbucks has bought Teavana, who knows.

In any case, start with tea lattes. At CBTL, these are teas that are mixed with steamed milk and vanilla. Starbucks has them too, but I haven’t tried them since they were added to the menu (shame on me!). Pick something flavored, like the Pomegranate Blueberry tea latte. This is sweet and fruity, and doesn’t taste too strongly of tea. Once you get used to that, you can work your way through the tea lattes toward ones that are less flavory and more tea-y. A good middle-ground is the Earl Grey tea latte. Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot oil, but it’s a “real” tea (you can find it pretty much anywhere). Eventually you can get tea lattes with plain black or green tea.

The next step, of course, is to drink plain tea. Possibly with some milk and sugar. For this I recommend getting something of decent quality. If there’s something you particularly liked at Coffee Bean, order that as a cup of tea rather than a tea latte. If you like that, buy a tin so you can make it on your own. Experiment with different teas, different additives, etc.

As with coffee, the key is to not be afraid to try things. If you have a tea-loving friend, ask them for recommendations. Friends from different tea-drinking cultures may give you interesting insights — I learned a lot of my tea-drinking habits from a Chinese friend of mine who always had a desk covered in different types of tea. If you have a local tea room, go there and ask for recommendations, or even a tasting. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, Chado Tea Room is great for this.

And again, as with coffee — don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” like. What matters is trying new things, and finding what you do like.

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Learn to drink coffee! Part 2

Sep 05

Last week I talked about how to get started drinking coffee when you can’t stand the taste. Here’s part two!

Okay, so you’ve found a drink you like or at least can stand. Now what?

Well, now you dial down the sugar and dial up the coffee. There’s a few ways to do this; one way is to order your drink with an extra shot of espresso, or with a pump or two less flavoring. Another way is to switch drinks — as a rule of thumb, coffee drinks that are lighter on calories are usually more coffee-flavored. Remember, you can always ask your barista for recommendations.

The last step of the process is usually to step away from lattes, mochas, and blended drinks and actually drinking regular coffee. This is the hardest step and if you never get to this point, that’s fine. I personally prefer lattes to regular coffee a lot of the time, and I never drink my coffee black. But if you’re having trouble being able to finish a cup of “regular joe”, here’s a few pointers:

Crappy coffee is not gonna help. Neither will coffee that’s too dark (I’m looking at you, French Roast). The Pike Place Roast they usually brew at Starbucks is decent, but if you really want to taste some good coffee, find a Starbucks with a Clover machine and ask the barista for a recommendation off their Reserve menu. This will be more expensive than a plain coffee but often cheaper than a froufrou latte. Or find a local coffeeshop that does pourovers, cold brews, French presses or the like, and try that.

Don’t assume that loading it up with sugar and cream is the answer. I find that going nuts on the sugar just results in a drink that’s too sweet to drink. Sweeten in moderation — and always start with less sugar than you think you need. You can add more if you want to. Another option is “classic syrup”, which adds the sweetness without adding any particular flavor. I get my Clover brewed coffees with two pumps of classic syrup and I find that’s just right for me

Experiment, experiment, experiment. The closer you get to plain black coffee the cheaper the drinks tend to be, so don’t be afraid to order something new. Ask baristas for opinions. Try new brewing methods. Try making it at home.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” like. Everything I say here is just a recommendation. Only you can know what you like. Many people swear by McDonalds coffee, or Dunkin Donuts. If you like it, drink it, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong. Just because I encourage you to try new things doesn’t mean the things you already like aren’t good enough!

And there you have it: my method for learning to drink coffee. Got questions? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter!
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Learn to drink coffee! Part 1

Aug 29

Believe it or not, this is something that’s come up many times over the past decade and a half. “I want to drink coffee, but I just can’t stand the taste!” “I need caffeine, but coffee tastes gross!” “I don’t like the taste of coffee, what can I drink?”

I’ll let y’all in on a little secret: I didn’t used to like coffee either. Couldn’t stand the taste. My early caffeine fixes were all from soda, because I didn’t like tea either.

What happened? Well for one thing, I got a job at Starbucks. That training gave me a ton of knowledge about coffee roasting, brewing, and drink recipes, and the time to experiment with different combinations.

The first thing I realized was that I’d been doing coffee all wrong. I figured that since I didn’t like coffee, the solution was just to load as much sugar and cream as I could into whatever cheap coffee was handy. Needless to say, the result was less than tasty and didn’t particularly incline me to drink more. If you don’t like something, then buying the cheapest version of it and trying to choke it down is not necessarily going to be productive.

Over the years I’ve developed a method for “teaching” people to drink coffee. I can’t guarantee it will work for everyone, but I’ve had good success with it on friends and family (because I share my addiction far and wide when I can). Here’s what to do:

Start with the most sugary froufrou drink you can stand. These will often be more expensive than less sugary drinks, but if you don’t like the taste of coffee then you’ll need to tone it down with something and sugar is the easiest way.

My usual recommendation is the White Chocolate Mocha. This is one of the sweetest drinks on the menu, hands down. If even this is too coffee-like for you, go even more to the sugary side with a single venti Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha. That’s a single shot of espresso in 20 ounces of sugar and milk.

Don’t like sweet things all that much? Try the Mocha. It’s chocolatey but not super sweet. If you need to tone the coffee down further, ask the barista for two or three pumps of a flavor syrup — hazelnut or vanilla would be good.

Want something cold? The above drinks can be ordered iced, or you can try the Java Chip Frappuccino. Basically a chocolate milkshake with some coffee in it.

Need to watch your sugar intake? Try a Skinny Mocha or a Sugar-free Vanilla Latte. Lactose intolerant? Order your drink made with soy. If you’re getting a mocha or white chocolate mocha, ask the barista whether the syrup has milk in it.

Once you’ve found your drink, then what? Tune in next week for part 2 of Learn to Drink Coffee!
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What should I order at Starbucks?

Jun 27

This has to be the #1 question I've been asked over the years. People walk into Starbucks, see the unfamiliar terminology on the menu boards, get overwhelmed and feel completely lost. That's one of the reasons I started a website waaay back in the early '00s with drink info on it, to help people navigate the menu.

The problem is, “What should I order?” is a hard question to answer without context. It's like “What should I order at McDonald's?” or “What book should I buy from Amazon?” To give a useful answer, you need to know the asker's preferences and what they're in the mood for. I'll list some of the more common things people have in mind here and my suggestions for what to order. And remember — when in doubt, ask the barista.

I just want a coffee. Go ahead and order a coffee, that's totally allowed. If they're in the middle of brewing a new batch, or if they've stopped brewing the coffee you want for the day, they may offer you an Americano, a French press, or a Clover brew. All of those are pretty good options.

I want something kinda sweet but not too expensive or fancy. Try the vanilla latte. It can be made hot or cold, depending on what temperature of drink you're in the mood for.

I want that thing that's like a coffee milkshake. That's a Frappuccino. The most popular flavor is usually the Mocha Frappuccino, followed closely by the Caramel Frappuccino.

I need something with a lot of caffeine to wake me up. Try a venti (large) vanilla latte with an “add shot”. That will get you three shots of espresso in a moderately sweet drink. If you want to up the ante more, make it a quad (four shots). Careful not to overdo it, though — know your caffeine limits. If you need a lot of caffeine but don't want it to taste like coffee, get a venti white mocha with an addshot instead. It will be more expensive, but the white mocha syrup is very sweet, to balance out the espresso.

I want something with no coffee at all. There's lots of options. Want a hot drink? Try a hot chocolate or a chai latte (this has tea in it, so there's still some caffeine). Want a cold drink? Grab a passion tea lemonade, a vanilla bean creme Frappuccino, or one of their new Fizzio sodas.

I'm a tea drinker. You can get a regular tea (there's several varieties to choose from) or a regular iced tea, as well as a line of tea lattes and chai if you want something more than just tea.

I want something caramelly! For a hot drink, get the caramel macchiato (mah-kee-AH-toe) and make sure you stir it well before drinking. For a cold drink, get the caramel Frappuccino.

I need to get something for my kid. The pastry case usually has some milks and juices to choose from. You can also get a kid's hot chocolate (it's an 8 oz cup, and not steamed as hot as adult drinks), an apple juice, or a vanilla bean creme Frappuccino (this has a lot of sugar in it, however). If your kid wants something different, ask the barista if they can make it with no coffee, or at least decaf. Be aware that decaffeinated coffee is not caffeine-free, so it's best to avoid coffee-based things entirely later in the evening.

I'm vegan/lactose intolerant. Most espresso drinks can be made with soy milk. Be aware that the basic flavoring syrups such as vanilla and hazelnut are made with sugar, so if that is an animal product concern for you, avoid these. Seasonal syrups such as pumpkin spice may contain milk products; check with your barista to be sure. When I worked for Starbucks many ages ago I was told that the mocha syrup was vegan, but I don't know if this is still true. Your barista should be able to check the ingredients on the package or syrup bottle if you have questions. If in doubt, stick to simple drinks like coffee, tea, or the juices in the pastry case.

I'm diabetic/on a diet. Plain coffee and tea are extremely low in calories and sugar-free. However, if you need more sweetness in your drink, sugar-free syrups such as sugar-free vanilla are available. Most Frappuccinos can be ordered Light, which reduces the calories and sugar by about half. For more detailed information, check the nutrition info on the Starbucks website.

That covers the most common “what should I order?” questions I get. If you've got a request that's not on the list, leave it in the comments and I'll make a suggestion. And like I said before, you can always ask the person behind the register for advice. Be ready to give them a rough idea of what you like (hot/cold, sweet/not sweet, coffee/tea/neither, etc). And if you don't like what you get, let them know and they'll probably be willing to make you a replacement drink! (Just … don't drink the whole thing and then claim you didn't like it and demand a new drink. They may humor you but they've seen that con game before.)

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