coffee in 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

Coffee innovations at MacIntyre, Angel

MacIntyre Coffee AngelOne motivation behind Bean Thinking is to explore those connections that can be found when we stop to really look around us. Whether your interest is in history, philosophy or science, something in a café will prompt a train of reflections that can lead to interesting and surprising thought journeys. This is surely true for anybody in any café, if we just take the time to slow down. But, I admit a prejudice: while I had heard great things about the coffee in MacIntyre, when I had glanced in from the bus window, I saw the scaffolding seating arrangements and wooden surfaces that can be a type of design found in many new cafés. So I worried. Was it going to be hard to ‘see the connections’ in MacIntyre? Would I end up with a great coffee but a challenge to my assumptions about the ubiquity of connectivity?

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The two lovely coffees that I have enjoyed at MacIntyre gave me plenty of time to really savour both the coffee and my surroundings and I was wrong in my assumptions from the bus window, connections really are everywhere. The café itself was a delightful find. Watching other customers while drinking my long black, it seemed that everyone was greeted by a cheery “hello”. Many people were clearly regulars, which is perhaps unsurprising for a friendly café with good coffee in a busy area. The scaffolding and wooden seating also works in the space at MacIntyre, giving a strangely relaxing feel to the café. The café itself is rather narrow, with the seating on one side and pastries/ordering queue on the other. Tap water was delivered with the coffee, without my needing to have asked for it.

Plant, light, scaffolding at McIntyre's Angel

Good scaffolding also has good connections.
Plant and light at MacIntyre.

MacIntyre may also be a great spot if you are into people watching. Amidst the general busy-ness, I could eavesdrop on conversations about the latest coffee news and the rise of artificial intelligence (these were two separate conversations!). Perhaps the conversations were particularly noticeable owing to the acoustics of the wooden walls and the narrow, small space of the café. At various points around the café, plants hung from the scaffolding. Some of the plants were spot-lit, which caused me to wonder whether the light that the plants were receiving was optimal for photosynthesis. The menu was projected onto the rear wall of the café, which was also decorated with hexagons, an immediate connection to graphene.

But then, in my coffee cup, the significant crema on the coffee showed evidence of amazing thermal convective motion together with turbulence. The coffee itself was very sweet with nutty overtones but the movements of the crema reminded me of cloud formation in thunderstorms. Although thunderstorms didn’t make it to the thought train of MacIntyre, another form of surface motion suggested a connection to another, unusual, feature of this café. You see, MacIntyre is a cashless business, no cash is accepted even if you’re only buying a long black. Most customers on my visit paid with their contactless cards.

The idea of a cashless society is one that has obvious advantages for both the business and the government/economy (whether it has such obvious advantages for the consumer I will leave as a point to be debated). While some countries are attempting to move to a more cashless economy, for a business to be entirely cashless is somewhat innovative. Even though MacIntyre is not the only café to go cashless (Browns of Brockley is similarly cash free), it has to be one of the first cafés to do so.

Coffee at MacIntyre Angel

Coffee and water on wood at MacIntyre Coffee. Could you increase the returns on your investments by understanding the movements on the surface of a cup of coffee?

What is the connection between this and the surface movement on my coffee? Well, it is not just at MacIntyre that a café has supported an innovation that has (or may) change our economy. Just over three hundred years ago, Jonathan’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley was a place of similar innovation, though there it was a customer rather than the coffee house itself that gave the change.

It was at Jonathan’s in 1698 that John Castaing published a paper twice a week detailing the latest stock prices titled “The course of the exchange and other things”. Recognised now as the origin of the London Stock Exchange, how stocks are priced and how their prices vary with time are subject to intense mathematical modelling. Although now, these models can be extraordinarily complex, the base of many of them share a mathematical model with the movements on the surface of your coffee cup, Brownian Motion.

Jonathan's coffee house plaque

The site of Jonathan’s in Exchange Alley. Seen while on a Coffee House tour last year.

Brownian motion is the phenomenon in which small particles of dust, or coffee grains on the surface of your coffee move in a random way as a result of collisions between the particles and the molecules in the liquid. First described in detail by a botanist, Robert Brown in 1827, the experimental evidence in favour of the molecular-collision explanation of Brownian motion came in 1910 with Jean Perrin’s careful experiments (that have featured in The Daily Grind previously). The maths behind the explanation relies on the idea of the ‘random walk‘ in which each dust particle is ‘kicked’ in a random direction by the molecules in the coffee, the consequent motion being frequently described with reference to a drunkard attempting to get home after leaving the pub. However, as this concept of the ‘random walk’ was being developed for molecules in a liquid, it was simultaneously being developed to model the movements of stock prices by the mathematician Louis Bachelier. Bachelier’s model of stock prices turned out to be the same as the model of Brownian motion, but both developed independently.

As yet, it is unclear (to me at least) whether there is a link between cashless payments and some of the maths in your coffee cup but, MacIntyre would be a great place to contemplate this as you sip your brew. Never succumb to prejudices, on which note please do let me know what you think of cashless payments, a great convenience or an invasion of privacy?

MacIntyre can be found at 428 St John St, EC1V 4NJ.