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Back Buzz - April 7, 2003

pumping heartColombian House, 5726 East Seventh Street, Long Beach, CA, USA

Things have changed quite a bit in the world since my last column, the most depressing change being the war in Iraq. But on the positive side I've suddenly found myself back in the UK! Yes, after six long months in the States I have returned and will once again be continuing to pursue good coffee in the Land of Tea.

But this week I'll review my last California cafe for awhile. Several Sundays ago I met my friend Schwartzie for lunch in Long Beach. After an excellent meal at Enrique's we both needed a bit of a pick-me-up, so we stopped at Columbian House, a small storefront in a shopping centre near California State University. Columbian House is yet another simple shopping centre coffeehouse, i.e. not the sort of place you'd normally choose to while away the hours but definitely a caffeinated destination for bored suburbanites. The lovely smell emanating from the door makes it obvious that they roast their own beans.

After ordering a couple of macchiatos from the nice young barista we sat at a table outside and gazed upon the spectacular view of the Ralphs supermarket and car park. Although the cafe smells wonderful my macchiato had little aroma and not much to offer in the way of flavour. Perhaps this is because the university students who obviously frequent the place have yet to develop their coffee palates. But what coffee establishments like this need is more seasoned espresso lovers like myself who demand a more robust experience in their cups. So stand up and demand, students! Trust your elders on this one.

For decor Columbian House features all sorts of Cal State Long Beach memorabilia: shirts, pennants, and photos. Personally I think they should have a model of the Great Pyramid of Long Beach near the front door. I recently went on a walking expedition to locate this Pyramid, built not by the ancient Egyptians or Mayans but by Twentieth Century architects. The large blue structure can be seen everywhere, peeking over the rooftops of suburban houses, much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Space Needle in Seattle. It's definitely one of the Seven Wonders of Long Beach, along with the Queen Mary, the empty Spruce Goose Dome, the Oil Islands, the Quonset Huts on the corner of Spring Street and Los Coyotes Diagonal, the oil well minimart in Signal Hill, and my mother's bench which I recently refinished. (There were eight wonders, but the teapot-shaped Hotcha Coffee Shop is sadly no more.) So there are your seven reasons to visit Long Beach, in case you needed any.

Speaking of smells -- not to mention ancient Egypt -- reminds me of an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from a couple years ago:

An article in the Business section of today's Los Angeles Times profiles a company that is bringing back an idea from the dawn of the 20th century -- vending machine food -- with a new twist: frozen food stored up to six months is cooked to perfection in 90 seconds by a combination of microwave and convection heat. Yum! In the same article a timeline traces the history of vending back to ancient Egypt!

But really, the new product lacks vision. You still have to insert physical money into the machine and wait for the product to be delivered. But today's busy executives often can't afford to wait 90 seconds for a nutritional fix. Why not allow them to order from their desktop computer, Palm Pilot, or wireless phone? Secure the transaction with e-cash. And hold the product until the intended consumer flashes an ID card or displays a fingerprint. Or better yet, deliver the product to the office using a pneumatic tube system! (Didn't you propose an alternative Internet using pneumatic tubes?) This reminds me of a related technology Andrew and I have been discussing, wondering why it hasn't been invented yet: Smell-a-Web! The busy executive could make his or her lunch choices based on the most appetising smell on a restaurant's online menu. This could use the same basic technology as those laser bands projected onto a wall (as at the Exploratorium and in Seattle's University Street Bus Tunnel station), where when you look at the band you see just a laser band but when you move your eyes away you see an image. The "smell strips" would work the same way: as you look away from a web photo of pesto pizza, the oblique image on the side of your vision would trigger your olfactory nerve like a bar code reader. Not only would food and recipe websites become much more popular and effective, but I could create Cathead.Com, where smelling cats' heads could heighten and restore one's sensory perceptions and calm the mind.

The possibilities are endless: MimeographHeaven.Com, where you could whiff a dose of that wonderful childhood smell; LumberYard.Com (wonderful lumber and sawdust smells); NewCar.Com; and perhaps CitySmells.Com, a travel site offering smells of London (diesel and chips), Paris (diesel, crepes, and dogpoop), Seattle (coffee and breweries), and Los Angeles (smog and tacos). The selling of perfumes, spices, flower seeds and bulbs, and leather goods could have that extra dimension. And, of course, for connoisseurs and practitioners of unique flatulatory demonstrations, there could be the audial/olfactory Gallery of Farts on Scatophilia.Com!

I don't think anybody is on the verge of stimulating the olfactory center electronically, but recently I heard something on the radio about a system that creates odors on demand. I don't remember the details, but I did find two related web sites. (Unfortunately, the tantalizing "RealSmell" doesn't give any details.)