I like to think that I’m not superstitious. I’m a science geek who majored in mathematics and has studied (both formally and on my own) physics, astronomy, relativity, logic, rhetorical theory, chemistry, biology, and a wide variety of related topics. Mr. Spock has long been one of my favorite characters in fiction. My real-life heroes have included famous skeptics such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, Billy Nye, and James Randi.
But every now and then things happen that make me believe. Lately, it’s been the coffee pot at work.
The office coffee system in each of the kitchens consists of a pair of thermos pumper pots, coffee maker, and a coffee grinder. The company contracts the coffee service, and about once a year changes to a new company. Which means that about once a year someone comes in and takes out the old equipment, then leaves nearly identical equipment in place.
Whenever one of us goes to get coffee out of one of the pots and we find it empty (a situation known as “losing the coffee lottery”), we’re supposed to dump out the old grounds, put a new filter in the basket, slide the basket into the grinder and push the grind button (the grinder is preset, so we can’t change the quantity or coarseness of the grind), then put the empty pot in place with the lid open, put the basket (now full of grounds) into place on the brewer, and press the brew button.
If you are a nice person who cares about how the coffee tastes, you will insert some steps to rinse things out at several points in the process.
Our current machines suffer from what I think are two major design flaws: 1) if you aren’t careful when you press the brew button, it registers it as two presses, and it will heat up and pour twice as much water as can fit in the pot, 2) if you don’t line the pot up exactly right so that the coffee hits the little hole exposed when you open the lid of the pot perfectly, coffee overflows without most of it actually going into the pot.
These are, in my considered opinion, not merely design flaws, but critical flaws which border on criminal stupidity.
A few weeks back we had several bad days in a row where different people didn’t quite get the pot lined up or accidentally pressed the button twice, resulting in giant puddles of hot coffee on the floor, not to mention coffee getting into several of the drawers under the machine–one of which, until this string of incidents, had been where the paper coffee filters were stored.
It was a serious mess each time.
So, one of our admin people sent out a very politely worded message reminding people that when you make coffee you need to make certain you’ve lined up the pot just right. And to be careful when you press the brew button.
I had lost the coffee lottery at least once during that stretch of days when that happened. And as is often the case, I was on my way to a meeting elsewhere in the building, so I’d been in a hurry. I didn’t know if I had been the person to cause one of the accidents, but I did know that I hadn’t waited to watch the coffee going into the hole for a few moments to make sure it was lined up correctly.
So I suspect one of those messes was my fault.
The very next time after reading the email reminder that I went to the kitchen to get coffee, I found an empty pot. I was very careful at every step and stayed to confirm that the pot was properly lined up before I left.
And the next time I went for a cup of coffee, again, I found an empty pot. So I was extra careful again.
It’s been five weeks exactly since the email reminder went out. Every single day that I have been in the office, I have lost the coffee lottery at least once that day. This is a significant variance from my previous experience, where I usually only lost the coffee lottery about once every other week.
I know that it has been every day, because starting with the third day in a row that it happened, I starting making a little checkbox on my calendar.
Every single day that I am in the office. That means (because I work from home one day most weeks) that my average has gone from making a pot once every two weeks to making 8+ pots every two weeks. That drastic a change in frequency is difficult to ignore. It happens so frequently, that I’ve changed my meeting habits. If I want coffee at a meeting, I now leave my cube several minutes early, because I know I’ll need to time to make a pot of coffee on the way.
Now, the skeptic in me says that what has probably happened is that several of my co-workers (there are a few hundred on my floor) have started avoiding making pots of coffee. If they find one pot empty, they’re just getting coffee from the other pot and hurrying away hoping no one sees them. If both are empty, they may head to the other kitchen, only succumbing to make a pot when all the pots in both kitchens are empty.
This is somewhat corroborated. Normally, when I find a pot empty, I first fill my cup from the other pot, and then I start the process of making a new pot. But about a third of the time, now, when I check the other pot after finding an empty coffee pot, I discover that both are empty.
But even though I have a possible explanation, deep in my heart I know that it isn’t true. Obviously I was one of the careless people five weeks ago who created a mess and didn’t have to clean it up. So now the universe is punishing me by giving me empty coffee pots again and again until… well, I don’t know when my penance will end.
At least I’m not being force to push a heavy boulder to the top of a mountain eternally, eh? And, so far, I’m being allowed to drink some of the coffee.