Finding Coffee in the US: A Spotters Guide

New Zealanders and Australians have grown accustomed to a certain style of coffee. They hear about great coffee places in the USA, and assume they will have no trouble finding good coffee in America. They are wrong. Americans have grown accustomed to a different style of coffee. There is good coffee in America, but it can be hard to find. Here’s a guide for New Zealanders and Australians: How to find decent coffee in the US.

The Rules:

  • Assume nothing. Their expectations are different.
  • Food and coffee do not go together.
  • Yelp reviews: read with caution.
  • A mocha is not what you expect.
  • Chain stores: in general, avoid.

Let’s look at those in more detail:

Assume Nothing

New Zealanders and Australians have been spoiled over the last 20+ years with the quality of the average cafe. You can walk into almost any cafe in Melbourne, or any town in New Zealand, and there is a high likelihood you will get a decent espresso coffee.

It does not work this way in the US, even in places like San Francisco. You can find decent coffee, but it is not everywhere. Many places that describe themselves as “cafes” only have a pot of filter coffee. In major centers you need to do research to find good places. Outside major centers it gets much harder.

Here’s an example: a year ago we were driving through rural Louisiana. I knew that coffee would be hard to come by. Sadly the best option looked to be a McDonalds “McCafe.” We knew that when McCafes were introduced to New Zealand they had made a real effort on the coffee front.

The conversation went like this:

I’ll have a cappuccino please.

A cappa-what?

A cappuccino.

Dianne, get over here! These people say they want a – what was it – a capp – u – cheeno. You ever hear of such a crazy thing? What in the hell is that?

Yes, a place with “Cafe” featuring in the name had never heard of a cappuccino. Americans have different expectations about what food & drink a cafe should provide. Many Americans are quite happy to pay for a cheap cup of filter coffee and Half and half. They don’t all want to pay $4-$5 for a hand-crafted beverage. You might think “Why not make it yourself at home?” They don’t think that way. You can’t change this.

There are people that *like* this shit

Once you get your head around this, you won’t be sucked in by a sign promising “Coffee!” It could well mean a glass beaker of coffee brewed 4 hours ago. No-one cares about the taste, that’s why there’s 8 different types of packets of sweeteners.

Fear not. All is not lost. There are places that know what they’re doing. You need to know what to look for.

These people know what they’re doing

Good Food Does NOT Mean Good Coffee

In NZ/Aus, there is a high likelihood that great food places will serve great coffee. Planning a lunch meeting with friends? If a good food place doesn’t do great coffee, it’s probably a bar.

In the US, there is an INVERSE relationship. Great coffee places in the US focus on coffee. They will offer nice pastries and muffins, but not proper meals. Places that serve good breakfast/lunch meals only have basic coffee. If you see lots of people eating, don’t expect to get good coffee.

They are queuing for food. Do not be fooled.

Many of the best cafes here focus on coffee. Coffee is their main revenue source, with a small amount of cakes & pastries (usually good). If you see people drinking coffee, working on laptops, and not much food: it will be good.

Yelp Reviews: Treat with Caution

Everyone uses Yelp in the US. Most places have many reviews, making it far more useful than in other countries. It’s very tempting to read the reviews, look for a well-rated place, and head there.


When reading the reviews, you need to treat them with caution. The reviewers are American, and as above, their tastes are different. So you have to interpret the reviews.

Here’s an example of a review I was reading:

OMG the regular coffee was only 12oz (355mL)! The smallest size should be at least 16oz (473mL)! Plus the coffee was way too strong and I couldn’t understand the French accent!

Bingo! This sounds like exactly the sort of place I want to visit. Small, strong coffee made by a European.

It is time-consuming to read & interpret reviews for lots of places. I have found a few shortcuts with Yelp: search for the phrases “Flat White,” “Cortado” and “Hipster.” Something in that list will usually turn up. The first two are always positive triggers, the last one needs to be read for context.

Hollow: So Hipster it Hurts

Also look for “Coffee Roasters” in Yelp, rather than Cafes. This is a separate category. Coffee Roasters with retail outlets are usually very good.

Mocha: Not What You Expect

In New Zealand a “mocha” (pronounced: mock-a) is short for mochaccino. This is a cappuccino with chocolate added. Very tasty.

In the US a “mocha” (pronounced: moak-a) is regular coffee with a spoonful of cocoa powder stirred in. Not tasty. Note: you will come across a tremendous variety in mocha flavors in the US. Peppermint, White Chocolate, Raspberry, etc. Avoid.

Note the laptops, and not much food

Chain Stores: In General, Avoid

Americans love franchises, and every strip mall has the same set of shops. It would make life far simpler if one of the nationwide cafe chains did decent coffee, but they are all rubbish. Locals will rave about Peets, Philz, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, etc. but as above: they have different expectations to you. Those chains are all crap. Their popularity remains a mystery.

Most definitely not a chain

There are some smaller chains with groups of stores in certain regions. Some of these are very, very good. Examples in the Bay Area include: Ritual, Blue Bottle, and Sightglass. If you find a chain you like in your area, consider yourself lucky.

Cafe Spotting

If you can’t find any conclusive Yelp reviews, and you’re wandering about looking for coffee, here’s a few more tips on spotting good places:

  • Queues. This may just be a San Francisco thing, but people love to queue. Be warned: they may be queuing for food. If so, the coffee is probably bad. Check that it is just a coffee place.
  • Espresso machine: it pains me to say this, but many ‘cafes’ do not have espresso machines. At least with these you can spot them from the window. Bonus marks if you also spot an array of coffee-making apparatus (Chemex, pour over, Bunsen burners, distilling units).
  • Cup sizes. If you see people walking out clutching dairy confections measured in quarts, run. Quality places will have small cups by default. I knew that I would like Red Rock when I saw that their Cappuccino had a single small size listed on the menu.
  • Hipster score. Sometimes a place looks “so hipster it hurts.” Say what you like about them, hipsters do know how to make good coffee (Photo of Hollow).
Looks promising

If all the above fail, find someone with gauged ears, and follow them to work.


I’m never throwing another party!!!

“I’m never drinking again” usually follows this statement, but this year was different much to the surprise of my beloved.  You see, he’s now been around for a few events that I’ve put together, and they usually take a lot of energy and anxiety, climaxing in a great night.  This is usually followed by what many would consider a rather messy house…and that’s without mentioning that cleaning up with a hangover is no better in my late 30’s than it was when I was just a young thing!

But this year was different.  This year the theme was the 90’s, an era in which both Lindsay and I experienced out youth. It had been our time to experiment with bad fashion, alcohol and to push the boundaries of our age.  And because it was the 90’s, we decided to reminisce by throwing the party in the garage.

Much to Lindsay chagrin I once again hired a mirror ball. An eager friend offered to put together a ‘best of the 90’s’ play list.  And in the final week we could be found madly dashing about picking up quality plastic cups (Id usually hire good glasses but not for this bash), costumes and purchasing the tipples of our youth – Southern Comfort, Double Brown beer and medium white wine in a box, aka ‘vin du cardboard’.

Lindsay had decided that we needed to go as a famous couple of the 90’s and in the end we settled on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.  Okay, so not in the best taste, but it sure had people in fits of laughter.  One group of male friends decided to join us as the Golden Girls and of course that caused a bit of an uproar on the dance/garage floor.  We were also graced with the presence of characters such as Britney Spears, Peter Pan and Wendy, and those who had dug deep into their wardrobe to find a delightful display of 90’s regalia.  A giant sized penguin that apparently wasn’t Pengu also joined us. He’d been drinking at the cricket all day so it seemed a sensible choice.

Monica and Bill.
Monica and Bill.
The Golden Girls...even includes one girl!  Check out the plate on the car.
The Golden Girls…even includes one girl! Check out the plate on the car.

The night went off with a bang.  The weather was perfect, the music rocked and the array of tacky nibbles that everyone had bought along did its best to line the tummies of those over indulgers.

The night came to an end without to many issues and only one neighbour asking us old timers to turn the music down (Hint: always invite the neighbours).  With friends staying over, the clean up in the morning was easy and no sticky floors to contend with, just a sweep out of the garage.  And it turns out that drinking all those cheap sweet tacky tipples has less of an effect than it did in my youth.  When all was done, and we sat down to a cup of coffee and a big breakfast at a local café I could say ”Yeah, maybe we will do it again”!

A couple of ol rockers...check out that ancient cellphone!!
A couple of ol rockers…check out that ancient cellphone!!
Now that one truly poofed backcombed fringe
Now that one truly poofed backcombed fringe
Courtney Love, Peter Pan and a Penguin
Courtney Love, Peter Pan and a Penguin
A few ol rockers....the rest of the party were too old to dance!!
A few ol rockers….the rest of the party were too old to dance!!






Site changes coming

You may noticed the new headline – this site is now for northlandboy and his girl. You can now reach the site via Links to will still work.

That’s because it’s no longer appropriate for the site to just be about Lindsay, as Anna is now at least 50% of his life.

Expect to see posts from Anna coming up, and more posts on joint activities. The theme will also get an overhaul in the next month or two – it’s desperately in need of it!

Lindsay is currently working on the look and feel of a new site, that will be dedicated to his professional technical writing. This will be much better than trying to mix life + travel with a deeper explanation of TCL scripting in IMC. Details to be made public soon.


Hearing Aids Cases Review

Whenever you buy hearing aids, they almost always come with a small plastic case. As I’ve been trying different hearing aids over the last couple of months, I’ve ended up with a reasonable collection of hearing aids cases, from different manufacturers. These have a range of features. Sometimes it’s a bit unclear how the designers expect you to use the cases, other times they’ve put a bit of thought into it. Below I’ve rated each of the cases I’ve received, along with a few notes on each.

I would use these cases whenever I need to put my hearing aids somewhere safe, possibly for transport – e.g. I might put them in my bag while swimming, or maybe while I’m riding my bike. Overnight I’ll generally store them in a drying kit, but other times they’ll be put in the case. The case should be able to safely store the aids, and ideally it will have a compartment for carrying useful accessories – spare batteries, cleaning tools, that sort of thing.

Here’s the collection I’ve amassed so far:

Full range of hearing aid cases - iPhone 4S on left for scale
Full range of hearing aid cases – iPhone 4S on left for scale

Let’s go through them one by one, in the order I’ve picked them up. First up is the small Widex case I got around 1999:

Small Widex Case Open
Small Widex Case Open
Small Widex Case Closed
Small Widex Case Closed

I like the relatively small size of this case, and the soft interior lid, which gives the aids some protection. Easy to put in the pocket. No place for spare batteries or tools though. Overall rating: Good

Next up is the case I received with my second set of Widex aids, around 2006-2007:

Large Widex Case Open
Large Widex Case Open
Large Widex Case Closed
Large Widex Case Closed

This is my current go-to case. It is bigger than the previous case, but it’s still small enough to put in a man’s pocket, if required. It’s got the hard outside, with softer inside that I like. It’s also got a little storage space to put spare batteries and tools. On the inside of the lid, you can see the pack of spare wax guard filters. It’s a nice touch being able to slot those in there. The designers have clearly put some thought into how people use these. Overall rating: Excellent.

Now, let’s move on to some of the cases I’ve received as part of my recent testing. Phonak really go to town, starting with a large soft case, which contains a smaller soft case, and a smaller hard-sided case. It has room for all manuals, tools, everything. Unfortunately this overall case is pretty large, as you can see in the earlier photo.

Phonak Large Carry Case
Phonak Large Carry Case

I’ve ended up with two of these, which is over-kill really. I don’t know who needs this great big case. I ended up with two of the smaller hard-sided cases from Phonak too, one slightly large, but both pretty small:

Smallest Phonak Hard-Sided Case
Smallest Phonak Hard-Sided Case
Slightly Larger Phonak Case
Slightly Larger Phonak Case

These are both very nice little cases. Nice and small, but still have some protection for the aids, and they have storage space for tools and batteries. Well thought out. Phonak also gave me this soft-sided case, but I have no idea where to use it, as it really offers no protection:

Phonak Small Soft-sided Case
Phonak Small Soft-sided Case

Overall, Phonak seems to be trying to cater to everyone. But they end up shipping a bunch of stuff that no-one really needs. Ultimately, I would probably only use the smallest plastic case, and everything else could be thrown away. Overall rating: Very good (would have been excellent, but they ship too much extra stuff)

Finally, the Oticon case that came with the most recent pair of aids I’m trying:

Oticon Hard Case
Oticon Hard Case

I’m not really impressed by this case. It’s a nice looking slide out case – not much chance of it accidentally flipping open, as the Widex cases are prone to do. But inside, it’s all hard edges, and there’s nowhere to put spare bits and pieces. It’s quite a large interior space, and they could have had something there, but they just didn’t seem to bother. Overall rating: Below Average

I’m undecided on keeping my Oticon aids. Possibly I’ll return them, and try the new Widex Dream aids in a few months, when they become available. I wonder what 2013 will bring for new case design from Widex?


Hearing is Believing

I’ve been using Widex Inteo hearing aids for about six years now. One CIC (Completely In Canal) model, and one ITE (In The Ear) size. Prior to that, I had another set of earlier Widex digital hearing aids for around 7 years.

Hearing aids have an expected lifetime of somewhere around 5-7 years, perhaps a little shorter for models like mine that live inside the ear. I’m lucky that I don’t seem to get much wax in my ears, so I’ve been lucky that mine last reasonably well. I’ve still had to get them serviced periodically, and I did once have them fail in Turkey (but luckily I was able to get them repaired!).

Technology moves on, and hearing declines as we age. At a minimum, I need my current aids serviced, tested, and possibly reprogrammed for my changing hearing. But since my current aids are still working, I’m not in a hurry to get new ones. Instead, it’s a good chance to look at my options, including a changing to a different manufacturer.

To start off, I had a full hearing test conducted by Dilworth. This went beyond the usual “tell me when you hear the beeps” test, and included comprehension tests in noise, and electronic measurements. Apparently not only is my hearing worse in my left ear, but my eardrum responds differently. If only there was a simple operation that could fix hearing. Not likely in my lifetime though.

Once we had the results, the audiologist and I had a look at what my options are. I wanted to stay with CIC or ITE style aids, which is a bit tricky, since my left ear is marginal or outside the limits for most manufacturers, in that style. I like CIC because they are good with the wind, I can put headphones over them if I need to, and they’re reasonably discreet. I’m getting older now though, so I’m not quite so fussed on that last point.

Depending on development cycles, vendors jockey for position for “best” hearing aids. Even then, what’s best for one person will be terrible for someone else. This is in part due to different philosophies of different manufacturers, as to how best to help with hearing loss. If you haven’t dealt with this sort of thing, you may think that it’s simply a matter of raising the volume. Turns out that it’s far more complex than that.

Firstly, different people have different patterns to their loss. For me, my low range is poor, my mid frequency is worse, but going up it gets quite a bit better. This is quite different to typical age-related loss, where the high frequencies are affected. If you raise the volume across all frequencies, you will distort speech as that person perceives it. Apparently increasing levels in one frequency range can drown out perception in other ranges. This can lead to the situation where everything seems very loud, but you still can’t understand what people are saying. All you get is a headache. Not much fun.

Secondly, different environments require different sorts of help. In a quiet environment, you probably do want to hear the page turning. But if you’re in a noisy environment, you really want to be able to focus on the conversation going on right in front of you. The last thing you want is every conversation in the room coming through at full level. So manufacturers work hard to try and detect the environment they’re in, and adapt. Some aids have programs that the user can select, but many now are automatic. These will try and work out what’s going on, and how best to respond. One of the things they will do is to compress loud sounds, to ensure they don’t cause discomfort to the user.

Thirdly, some manufacturers have a philosophy of “speech comprehension is more important than anything else.” In some ways this is true, but this can make the adaptation phase harder for those using aids for the first time, or changing manufacturers. Others aim for more natural sound.

The other thing that plays into this is the user – you get used to a certain sort of “style” and changing can be very jarring. If you expect to hear a car door slamming sound like, well, a car door slamming, it’s very disconcerting when it sounds like a short clap. It’s also very odd to hear your voice changing. Takes a while to get used to.

Anyway, we decided that Phonak Virto aids would be the best for me to try. The specs said I could get two CIC aids, so we ordered those. Turned out the specs were a touch optimistic. Even with my good-sized ear canals, with the gain needed on the left ear, they just couldn’t make a shell that worked. In the end, we got a slightly larger aid than originally anticipated, but it wasn’t too bad. The initial moulding of the right ear was also a problem, with it being very long, and pushing on my ear drum. Very painful. Managed to get that one shortened though, and all was good.

The Phonak style is very different to the Widex style. Much more focused on speech, and to my ears at least, somewhat “tinny.” Huge amounts of echo too, until we got them programmed right. That’s the other thing with modern hearing aids – you hook them up to a computer, while they’re in your ears, and you have a million options you can change on them. You can also insert tiny tubes alongside the aids while they’re in your ear, then a machine plays a sentence to you, and shows what the aids are doing, along with recommendations on improving the settings. The only problem with having a million options is of course trying to work out which ones you actually need to change. Also tough when you’re doing it at the clinic, as there’s not that many different environments you can be exposed to.

The Phonak aids were strange to get used to, but I decided to only wear them for several weeks, and not fall back to my old aids. Turned out to be pretty tough going. I realised I was missing a lot of conversation, and my wife saw me missing more that I didn’t even notice. But it was in noisy environments that they were toughest. Shopping malls or parties were very tough, where they just gave me a wall of noise. In that situation, you tend to shut down, as it’s the only way to cope.

We tried making adjustments to them, but ultimately they just weren’t going to work for me. Maybe someone else, but they weren’t an improvement on what I had – they were worse – so there was no point paying the $7,100NZD. So back to the audiologist.

Now I’m trying some Oticon Acto aids. I had to go for an ITC Power style for my left ear, to get the gain I needed, but I’ve got CIC for the right ear. I’d rather have them the same, purely so they use the same battery, but hey, I’m used to this setup now. Initial fitting went well, and the tests on the machine show that we’re able to get these ones to pretty much exactly where the machine thinks they should be.

It’s hard to say what they’re going to be like – my brain is still adjusting to the changed sounds. They feel like they might be a little worse right now, but I need to give it a few more days before we’ll know. Hopefully these work out, otherwise I’m going to go back to my trusty Widex Inteo aids. They’re being serviced right now. Widex tells me that they’ve got new stuff coming out soon. So if I do go back to the Widex aids, then I’ll stick with them for a bit longer, and maybe in 12-24 months I’ll try again.

I’ll report back in a couple of weeks with progress.

Bike Touring Uncategorized

Two Left Feet

November was cold, but we had a fabulous spell of weather here in Auckland during the first few weeks of December. Several weeks of glorious sunshine, with almost no rain. This is distinctly abnormal for Auckland, so we decided to make the most of it, by going for a mountain bike ride in the Hunua Ranges, to the South-East of Auckland.

There’s a great set of trails that take in single track through bush, gravel roads, open fields, stream crossings, etc. It doesn’t have the enormous network of trails that Woodhill or Whakarewarewa has, so it’s not the sort of place you want to visit all the time, but it is well worth at least a couple of trips a year. Since it can get a bit slippery, it’s better to time a trip after an extended fine spell.

OK, so we’ve had a good spell of weather, and it’s been a while since we’ve been, so let’s go! Get up early on Saturday morning, walk the dog, load up the car with bikes and gear, on the road at a decent time, and at the trailhead by 9:00. Perfect. Sun shining, a few other tramping groups around, not many bikers though. Excellent, time to unload the bikes and get set up.

Pull down the bikes, grab the box of gear and start sorting out Camelbaks, etc. Today I’m riding in my SPD sandals, while Anna’s using her normal MTB shoes. Picking up one of the sandals, I immediately see something wrong – it’s only size 41-42. Anna has a pair of sandals identical to mine, except smaller. She’s not wearing hers today, but it looks like maybe I’ve chucked her pair in the car, instead of mine. Well, they’re just sandals, and they’re not that much smaller than mine, so maybe I can make do with those? Yeah, probably.

Except wait a minute, where’s the other sandal? Here it is, and this ones a 45-46. That’s more like it. Maybe I’ll just be able to make do with one that’s a bit tight? But you’ve guessed it, I had two left sandals. What to do? The only other footwear I had was a pair of jandals (thongs/flip-flops), which were just far too soft to wear with SPD pedals. Well, they’re sandals with lots of adjustment points, maybe I could wear the bigger one on the wrong foot?

Something's not right here
Something’s not right here

By now Anna is just about wetting herself, but she’s trying to hold it in, as I’m in a rather grumpy mood, since it doesn’t look like our ride is going to happen. I tried riding around the carpark, looking like a right fool, but it just wasn’t working, with the sandal hitting the crank, making for difficult riding. We’re too far away from any bike shops to make it worth going and buying new pedals or shoes, so we have to make a call – pack up the bikes, and head home, no ride :-(. It’s too far out here to justify driving all the way home, then back out again.

On the way home, someone sends a message inviting us to brunch. “Sorry, can’t make it, we’re taking the bikes out to Hunua.” Well, technically it was true…

Get home, unpack the gear, and just go for a road ride around town. Good ride it was too. Shame about Hunua.