Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: cafe

Starbucks on a rainy day

Revising the social scanning article

At Kepler’s, in Menlo Park.

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Coffeeshop workers in New York City

A pretty good New York Times article on people who spend a lot of time working in coffeeshops. My favorite: a matchmaker who works out of a “Nora Ephron-ish coffee shop in the West Village” rather than an office because it’s “easier to get people talking in a cafe.”

Essentially, cafes really have become cheap coworking space filled with cafe zombies.

[To the tune of Blur, “Coffee & TV,” from the album 13 (I give it 2 stars).]

The world is flat, and Cafes Zoë are unavoidable

There’s one in Menlo Park that I go to a lot.


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Tonight I found another one in Budapest, on Raday Utca. Rather different, but still the same name (allowing for the fact that Hungarians, like Asians, put family names first).


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Now I need to look for them in Vienna and London….

[To the tune of Wynton Marsalis, “Autumn Leaves,” from the album Live at Blues Alley (Disc 2) (I give it 3 stars).]

Please rise for the national anthem

Singing Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" with the Bell Brothers.

Singing
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And man, do I need to replace that shirt, which is an artifact of my previous body. Maybe I should ignore the credit limit, take a weekend in San Francisco, and Just Do It. I currently have two pairs of jeans and a black jacket that actually fit; everything else ranges from oversized, to cavernous, to drapery.

Writing

I have a day with no meetings. Owing to the combination of the Institute being a pretty meeting-driven place, and my own distracting sociability, this is a rare thing. Not one to be wasted.

Another day writing
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My corner pub

Last night, as I was having an exceptional second beer in 24 hours (I’d had the first with dinner, and then went to the gym and sauna, so I thought I could risk it), I briefly lamented the fact that when I lived in Berkeley, I had a corner pub– the wonderful, loud, and interesting Bison Brewery, where I’d go, have a pint or two, and write. I wasn’t exactly a regular– the bartenders and I didn’t know each others’ names– but I still enjoyed the place. I don’t have a pub here. I drink so little it would hardly be possible. Still, it seemed a bit of a shame.

Today, as my wife took the kids and their friends to the movies, I headed over to Cafe Zoë, to do some work. (I’m now at that age– or maturity– where I see that solitude is an opportunity, not the absence of others.) I’ve been coming here for years, when it was under different ownership. As I was ordering my chai latte, I read a sign they’d just put up announcing a loyalty program. Visit ten times, your next coffee is free– a deal I’ll be able to take advantage of approximately every four days, even when I’m not running a tab. “I should sign up for that,” I said.


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The owner– Zoë’s mother– said, “Oh, we’ll give you this drink for free. You’ve been here a lot more than ten times. You’re a regular.”

I guess I am.

My new cafe… and bank

I’m spending the morning at Cafe Zoë, writing to a lot of people. I never expected, when I started working as a futurist, that I would have to calculate what time it was in Beijing and Budapest, and make sure to get some e-mails out while people are still in their offices or awake. But that’s my life these days.

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I’ve been coming to this cafe for a couple years now (actually, a quick check of my external memory– aka the blog archive– reveals its been four years and one month), and this morning I discovered a new function. I got to the counter, realized I didn’t have any money, and apologized and told them I’d be back.

“It’s okay,” the owner said. “You can owe us. It’s not the first time you’re here.” She pulled out a book with IOU on the front– I guess there are plenty of people who come here a little absent-minded– and wrote down my order.

It makes perfect sense. Unless I want to never come back here, I’m good for the $3.60. And they want to keep me as a regular customer, so it’s a reasonable risk for them.

Fortunately they seem to be doing pretty well, despite the downturn: there are a core group of us who are here regularly, and they seem now to have multiple clienteles at different times of day: stroller jogger moms in the morning, people coming in for lunch, freelancers or people who aren’t working and home and don’t want to work in the office (hello!), and people from nearby businesses, popping in for a cup of coffee. It’s a real slice of the neighborhood, and very nice to see.

Back to work

Got a lot of my own stuff that I’m working on, as well as never-ending Institute stuff.

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Fortunately it’s a cold, rainy day here, perfect for writing.

Moodblurbs and social hardware

One of my colleagues, who knows how much time I spend working in coffeehouses (and probably could see from my Plaze that I’m working at one this morning), pointed this out this morning: Moodblurbs.

Moodblurbs are, on a very basic level, a fun way to communicate. Think of them as three dimensional status messages; or as a silent conversation starter, even as a dating tool.

[The] Moodblurb holder… connects to your laptop (cubicle, bicycle, review mirror, baby stroller – anywhere you want to clip it – but we really had laptops in mind at first), and holds one Moodblurb at a time.

The Moodblurbs are designed to help you express your mood, intentions or humor at the moment. Some of the expansion packs give you the tools to have actual conversations with the blurbs without getting up from that comfy couch seat in the corner of the coffee shop.

They’re designed as a way to counter the cafe zombie effect.

In the summer of 2005, we were sitting at Spyhouse Coffee (a favorite of ours in Minneapolis), reading an online article that talked about how with the increasing availability of WiFi (wireless internet), more people were coming out to places like the Spyhouse with their laptops. Cool, right? Yeah, but the downside was that this was having an adverse affect on the coffee shop community – people were staying online, and no longer getting to know the people sharing their public space. In simple terms, strangers weren’t talking to each other.

We began brainstorming about how to get people with their laptops talking again. At first, we were thinking purely in online terms. Then, it came to us (we will argue till the end of time who came up with the actual idea first), that what we needed to do was come up with a way to get the online community to communicate offline in a manner similar to the one they used online.

Moodblurbs is the answer to the question of how to make online messengers and blogs and such three dimensional. The Moodblurb is similar to a short post or a status message, and encourages others to communicate with you – which is why we come up with clever messages online in the first place – to initiate a response.

Of course, the object itself is likely to become an attractor of social interchange, until they stop being novelties.

One thing Moodblurbs and the cafe zombie phenomenon highlights is how laptops and PCs cut people off from their social surroundings, even as we increasingly use them as a tool for communications. My Powerbook lets me keep up with my brother in New York, my father in Kuala Lampur, and my colleagues spread between Santa Cruz and London; but it acts as a barrier to talking to the person at the table next to me.

Some of this has to do with the fact that I’m generally working when I’ve got my laptop open; but computers do a good job of sucking your attention away from the real world (ironically, even as they can enable a kind of information-charge ADD). They require you to look at them, occupy your hands, and are just complicated enough to require constant monitoring when you’re using them.

This leads to a question: when are we going to see a social hardware movement that’s the equivalent of the social software movement? Obviously anything that’s easier to use is, by definition, going to make you more social just by freeing up some neurons and bandwidth. When will we start seeing devices that make it a little clearer to other people what we’re doing, without necessarily showing them what we’re reading, working on, etc.?

© 2017 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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