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What has coffee to do with managing data? An Interview with Alon Halevy.

by Roberto V. Zicari on December 20, 2012

What has coffee to do with managing data? Probably nothing, but at the same time how many developers do I know who drink coffee? Quite a lot.
I myself, decided years ago to reduce my intake of coffee, and I now drink mostly green tea, but not early in the morning, where I need an espresso to get started :-)

So, once I found out that my database fellow colleague Alon Halevy, very well known for his work on data management, also wrote a (seemly successful) book on coffee, I had to ask him a few questions.


Q1. How come did you end up writing a book on coffee?

Alon Halevy: It was a natural outcome of going to many conferences on database management. I realized that anywhere I go in the world, the first thing I look for are nice cafes in town. I also noticed that the coffee culture varies quite a bit from one city to another, and started wondering about how culture affects coffee and vice versa. I think it was during VLDB 2008 in Auckland, New Zealand, that I realized that I should investigate the topic in much more detail.

Q2. When did you start this project?

Alon Halevy: I was toying around with the idea for a while, but did very little. One day in March, 2009, recalling a conversation with a friend, I googled “barista competitions”. I found out that the US Barista Championship was taking place in Portland in a week’s time. I immediately bought a ticket to Portland and a week later I was immersed in world-class barista culture. From that point on, there was no turning back.

Q3. What is the book about?

Alon Halevy: In the book I go to over 25 countries on 6 continents and ask what is special about coffee culture in that country. I typically tell the story of the culture through a fascinating character or a unique cafe. I cover places such as the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia, where I spend time in a farming community; in Iceland, where the coffee culture developed because of a bored spouse of an engineering Ph.D student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Bosnia, where coffee pervades culture like nowhere else in the world. The book includes many photos and data visualizations (of course!) and makes you want to travel the world to experience some of these great places.

Q4. How did you find the time to visit the main locations you write in your book?

Alon Halevy: Many of the trips were, of course, piggybacked off a database conference or other speaking engagements. After a while, I was so determined to finish the book that I simply got on a plane and covered the regions that don’t attract database conferences (e.g., Central America, Ethiopia). Over time, I became very efficient when I arrived at a destination (and the rumor that I usually bring Google goodies with me started spreading through the coffee community). I developed a rich network of coffee friends, and everywhere I went I was taken directly to the most interesting places.

Q5. So what is the best coffee in the world :-)?

Alon Halevy: That is obviously very subjective, and depends more than anything on who you’re having the coffee with! In terms of sheer quality, I think some of the Scandinavian roasters are doing an amazing job. I was really impressed by the coffee culture in Melbourne, Australia. Japan and Korea were also unexpected highlights. But if you know where to go, you can find amazing coffee almost anywhere. Once you start sensing coffee in “high definition”, tasting the variety of flavors and notes in the brew, coffee becomes a fascinating journey.

Q6. Would you say that coffee is an important part of your work?

Alon Halevy: Yes, even putting aside the fact that no work gets done before coffee is consumed, the coffee community has given me an interesting perspective on computing. Coffee folks are enthusiastic users of technology, as they are a globally distributed community that is constantly on the move (and have a lot to say thanks to their elevated caffeine levels). It is also interesting to think of how technology, and data management techniques in particular, can be used to help this global industry. I hope to investigate these issues more in the future (I’m already being tapped by the coffee community for various database advice often).

Q7. Coffee can be bad, if you drink it in excess. Do you cover this aspect in your book? (I assume not), but what is your take on this?

Alon Halevy: There is a lot of debate on the benefits of coffee in the scientific literature. If you consume coffee moderation (2-3 cups a day), you’re fine (unless you have some abnormal condition). But remember, I am a Doctor of Computer Science, not Medicine.

The Infinite Emotions of Coffee, by Alon Halevy.

You can download a sample chapter of the book: “COFFEE: A Competitive Sport” (Link to download .pdf)

Details on where to get the book: the book’s page.
(The digital version is available on iTunes, Kindle and the Google bookstore) .



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