Angel

Seeing the unseen at Scarlett, Angel

Coffee Angel, Scarlett, roasters, coffee in Islington
Coffee at Scarlett, Angel

Although first alerted to Scarlett coffee in Angel by Double Skinny Macchiato last summer, we managed to visit during the one week of their summer holiday (and so we revisited Katsute100 around the corner instead). Nonetheless, it remained on the list and a few weeks ago we turned up for a mid-afternoon coffee at this inconspicuous looking venue on a side street just around the corner from Angel tube.

The roaster at the back of the cafe forms an immediate impression. With the large, communal table at the front of the cafe, backed by stairs leading up to the roaster, this is a place where coffee is taken seriously. The counter (on the left as you enter) offered a range of cakes and edibles but having recently come from lunch in Chapel Market, we passed on this on this occasion. Above the counter there were about 5 lights hanging down forming what looked like a giant Newton’s Cradle. Just too high for me to reach unfortunately.

I enjoyed my long black as I started to take in the surroundings of this cafe. Various people and regulars came and went, suggesting that this is a friendly local haunt for many. Noticing the number of different roasted coffee beans for retail, it was clear that this is a venue that you could return to for a different coffee experience each time. Each time exploring an aspect of the flavour of the coffee and building on the experience of coffee tasting that you have enjoyed before. It is definitely on the list for a repeat visit.

Interior Scarlett
One of the light fittings at Scarlett in Angel. Cube outlines drawn on paper can form an optical illusion where you can’t work out if the cube is coming out at you or going into the paper.

Above our heads, the lights were framed by the outline of a cube. Fantastic for optical illusions, these cubes offer us an opportunity to think about how we perceive depth and direction; how our eyes work and perhaps, more fundamentally, what it even means to see an object (as with Berkeley’s “New Theory of Vision”). Then, while looking through the menu, it became clear that here too there was an optical illusion of sorts. For the price list was not written on the board so much as cut out of it (see the photo below). The price you could read off the menu was, in some sense, precisely the information that was not actually on the board. Our brain makes patterns of that which we don’t see and, together with our assumptions about what should be there, we form an idea of the price we have to pay.

It is a similar thing with many algorithms in use around us now. Such tools can be immensely helpful, offering us suggestions for coffees we may like to try (based on our buying habit) or routes that we may like to take to get us to our destination. And yet, are there problems hidden in the assumptions that some of these algorithms make? What information are we getting based on elements in the programme that we do not see?

In her excellent book “Weapons of Math Destruction”, Cathy O’Neil explores some of the more dangerous ways that our biases and assumptions (particularly those that we don’t see in ourselves) can impact the results of algorithms that have been written to optimise processes from the sorting of job applications to determining the length of time a given convicted criminal will serve for an offence. In an example relevant for cafes, O’Neil related an example of how Starbucks had used an algorithm to determine which baristas and managers should work which hours, including who should close the shop at night and who should open it in the morning.

Scarlett menu
The menu at Scarlett. Apart from the filter coffee, the prices and information for each coffee is revealed by what is absent from the board rather than what is printed onto it.

The algorithm was programmed to calculate the most efficient use of the cafe’s time and money, specifically prioritising the profit that the company made. One measure of this was “revenue per employee hour”. This had the consequence that staff members were frequently in a position where they were told that they had to do both the (late night) closing and (early morning) opening of the shop and were given very few days notice of this expectation. Clearly this impacted the lives of their staff and affected their ability to arrange child care, support themselves through further education and other consequences. Eventually Starbucks was forced to amend this algorithm but change comes hard: how do you ask a computer to measure “fairness” to an employee (a subjective term) when you can use revenue per employee hour which is measurable, quantifiable and therefore ‘accurate’?

Perhaps you think that the link back to Scarlett here is obvious: That if you choose to drink your coffee in friendly neighbourhood cafes where cafe owners and baristas work to patterns formed by encounter rather than algorithm it would be better than a place which is run assuming all workers are cogs in a profit machine? Perhaps. But the link back to Scarlett in my mind is not that at all.

If you look at the front of Scarlett, or its webpage, and assume that the pink bird is a funny looking flamingo, you may make a series of assumptions about what you think the cafe will be like and why the owners have a bird on their front door. If you found out that the bird was actually a Scarlet Ibis and associated with the coffee growing regions of South America, your ideas about the cafe and the owners may be different. For a general customer, looking for somewhere to enjoy a great coffee, perhaps these assumptions and ideas do not matter so much. But if we are ever in a position to feed our assumptions into an algorithm, these hidden (to our own conscious) assumptions could matter a great deal.

Scarlett is at 30 Duncan Street, N1 8BW

“Weapons of Math Destruction – how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy” by Cathy O’Neil, Penguin Books, 2016

Counting the caloric at Jaz & Jul’s Chocolate House, Chapel Market

Jaz Jules chocolate house

Jaz and Jul’s, The Chocolate House on Chapel Market

The London coffee houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have entered history as Penny Universities, places of debate and centres of news. Together with the (scientifically based) Grecian, there was Jonathan’s in Exchange Alley (origin of the stock exchange) and Lloyd’s on Tower Street (associated with insurance). But along side these coffee houses there were the chocolate houses, Whites and Ozinda’s on St James’ St and the Cocoa Tree in Pall Mall. White’s in particular developed such a reputation that it features in Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (which can be seen at Sir John Soane’s museum).

So it is an interesting bit of history repeating to find Jaz & Jul’s, a chocolate house on Chapel Market. The interior here is very far from Hogarth’s rendering of White’s. Here, light fittings hang from the ceiling like drops of chocolate about to melt into the café while photographs of cocoa plants and farms adorn the walls. Moreover the emphasis on social responsibility, including in sourcing, mean that this establishment is worlds away from the debauched shenanigans at White’s. Their coffee is roasted and supplied by Monmouth while the cakes are hand made and, needless to say, very chocolatey. The light and fluffy chocolate-Pimms cake arrived with my coffee presented on a plate and matching cup that reminded me of a mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.

Interior of Jaz and Jules Chapel Market

The chocolate counter at Jaz and Jul’s

The side of the counter was tiled to resemble a bar of chocolate, which immediately reminded me of the physics and chemistry of chocolate crystallisation. However, the physics connection of this cafe-physics review is a bit more lateral than that. Soon after I had enjoyed my incredibly chocolatey cake at Jaz & Jul’s, a study was released which showed that Britons were significantly under-reporting their daily calorie intake. Could it be that the obesity epidemic is a result of us eating too much rather than merely exercising too little? Apparently, rather than consume the (recommended) levels of 2500 kcal for men and 2000 kcal for women, many people were eating up to 3000 calories per day. Everything in moderation of course and there was plenty of room in my own calorie count for that great piece of cake (honestly). But the word ‘calorie’ turns out to have a connection with chocolate in a more unexpected way.

Calorie comes from the Latin, calor, meaning heat which in turn hints at how we used to think about heat itself. While we now think of heat as energy, which is why it doesn’t even strike us to equate the ‘energy’ in the chocolate cake with the number of kilo-calories in it, this is not how heat was always viewed. In fact, in the eighteenth century, about the time of the old chocolate houses, heat was thought of as a type of fluid, caloric. Caloric was thought to be able to flow in and out of all substances. When something got hot it was because the caloric flowed into it, when something got cold, it was because the caloric had leaked out. Caloric theory was in many ways very successful in understanding heat and heat processes. For example, the theory easily explained thermal expansion, if a fluid had to flow into something in order for that thing to warm up, then surely, the fluid has to occupy some space, the object must expand to hold it!

Mint choc chip cutlery

Coffee with the Chocolate-Pimms cake.

One area that was tricky for caloric theory though was the fact that friction could cause something to heat up. Such heat generation is crucial for our extraction of chocolate. Once harvested from the plant and cleaned, the cocoa bean is first roasted then shelled to leave the cocoa ‘nibs’. These nibs are then ground more finely. As they are being ground, the friction caused by grinding is enough to cause sufficient heat to melt the cocoa butter in the nibs which is then extracted and retained for later use*. How could you explain this heating if you thought of heat as a fluid? The traditional explanation was that as the two objects rubbed against each other (in this case, nib and stone grinder), the caloric fluid would be squeezed out, it would appear as if heat had been generated.

Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814), disagreed with this explanation of heat. In the course of a colourful career he had been involved in manufacturing cannons in Bavaria. Rumford had noticed that a lot of heat was generated each time a cannon shaft was bored out. The heat produced continued as long as the grinding continued. If the heat were due to the cannon leaking caloric, surely there would be a point at which the cannon stopped getting any hotter. Yet this did not happen. Rumford suggested (correctly) that instead what was happening was that the energy generated by the boring was being transferred into the metal of the cannon, causing microscopic motion.

Although the heat as motion/energy idea eventually caught on, caloric in some ways still survives in the name that we give to our food energy intake. And so we can return to the cake, could it be that spending time thinking about the caloric in the cake can justify the calories consumed eating it? Sadly the jury is out on whether thinking counts as calorie counting exercise. It seems that the brain’s energy consumption is already so great (at 20% of our resting metabolic rate), that intense thinking does not add too much to the energy consumed by the brain. So we’ll need another excuse and I don’t think we have to look far. The coffee and chocolate at Jaz & Jul’s is delicious enough to justify a significant chunk of your daily calorie count, just based on considerations of taste. Everything in moderation!

 

Jaz and Jul’s is at 1 Chapel Market, N1 9EZ

*”Chocolate: A Global History”, by Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch, published by Reaktion Books, 2009