The Berlin Wall, 20 Years Since the Fall

Today, I find myself thinking about the Berlin Wall coming down 20 years ago. I was a senior in high school, and the event felt significant to me. I suppose a number of factors had contributed to the sense of exaltation and relief I had felt at the time.

First, I believe there is an innate understanding that human spirit wants to be free.

Second, some of my early memories about the Wall and the Iron Curtain came during my middle school years. Does anyone else remember watching the film “Night Crossing?” (It was projected in my middle school’s gymnasium one day.) Based on a true story, two East German families built a hot-air balloon so they could escape to West Germany. I was probably 11 years old at the time.

Third, I recall reading stories about East Germans who died in their escape attempts to cross the Wall. It was probably a book I was browsing through in the library, but the haunting photos of death and barbed wire are indelible in my memory. A google search turned up the 1962 story of Peter Fechter, who bled to death at the base of the wall, after being shot by East German guards as he tried to escape.

Additionally, I was a child of the Reagan Cold War era. And the Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of that divide between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There were countless movies that drew their inspiration from that conflict. Nuclear war was something still on people’s minds; there was a controversial television movie named “The Day After,” which was broadcast in the mid-1980s.

Thinking about the years after the wall came down, I recall my first visit to Germany in 1996. I toured the museum at Checkpoint Charlie. I walked in former East Berlin. I went to a flea market in Mitte, where I saw relics of the cold war for sale: communist-era telephones and radios, etc. I remember seeing bullet holes in the oldest buildings. And I recall all the cranes, and the construction taking place in the East, particularly in the Potsdamer Platz area of the city. When I returned to Germany in 2006, I was impressed with the results of all that construction I had seen 10 years earlier. Twenty years has brought a lot of change.

Anyway, take this moment to remember a day when two halves re-united, when two parts became whole again. Here’s to the celebration of freedom and the persistence of human spirit which yearns to be free.

Making Cheap International Calls

I recently made the mistake of calling a number in Canada with my cell phone last month.  This month, I discovered that my call to Canada cost me 48 cents/minute.  Thankfully, I chatted for only 10 minutes.

Looking into alternative options, I obviously wanted something cheaper, but I didn’t want to pay a monthly fee for the privilege of being able to make cheaper international phone calls.  I call Canada only occasionally, and I think Sprint PCS charges $5/month for the option to call Canada at 10 cents/minute. Blah.  That’s still a crappy deal.

After some internet searching, I discovered a company called  Allows me to make really cheap calls to anywhere in the world (internationally and domestically).  In many cases, for less than 1 cent/minute.  Calls to some countries and mobiles cost a bit more, but that’s because of tariffs imposed by those countries.  Essentially, is a pre-paid long-distance service, that does not charge hidden fees, nor does it prematurely expire pre-paid credits (as long as you make 1 phone call per year).  I got started with a credit of 5 bucks.  And at $0.0070/minute to Canada, that’s a credit good for 12 hours of calling to Canada.

I’ve since discovered that Skype offers a similar service (Skype To Go).  If you’re already using Skype, then you may prefer that service.  However, for various reasons, I actually prefer  It’s cheaper than Skype, and there are no hidden fees (e.g. no connection fees).  Also, Localphone allows me to alias long-distance phone numbers to local phone numbers that I can save to my cell phone’s address book.  I can then dial the local number directly from my cell phone, without first calling an access number.  Also Skype To Go works from only 11 countries, while Localphone has local call numbers in almost 50 countries, which means I can use it more often when I travel internationally.

Lastly, I should point out that is a UK company, but their web site does not make it particularly clear that their service works for anyone in any country.  Also, the cost of calling a country is the same rate, regardless of what country you are calling from.


Stovetop Espresso

Recently, I came to realize that I occasionally enjoy a small cup of espresso after dinner. I have a nearby coffee shop that supplies me with my morning latte fix, but they close in the late afternoon, and besides, it’s not so convenient to go to the coffee shop for after-dinner espresso. Therefore, I’d like to be able to make espresso at home. I could buy a decent espresso maker for my home, but I don’t see the value of a $300 machine for the occasional after-dinner espresso (about once per week).

With that in mind, I did a little research, and I found a couple of lower-cost alternatives available.

Bialetti Moka Express

Various sizes of Bialetti Moka pots

The first option is the Bialetti Moka Express, which is a stovetop “espresso” maker. It’s very common in Italy, where it was invented in 1933 by none other than a Mr. Alfonso Bialetti. Numerous companies now manufacturer moka pots, but the Bialetti design is unmistakably classic. It comes in a variety of sizes: 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12-cup models. Most stores carry only the 3 or 6-cup model. In San Francisco, the Caffe Trieste retail store in North Beach (located adjacent to the Caffe Trieste coffee shop) carries all the sizes, including the hard-to-find 1-cup model, and their prices are the cheapest I’ve found. Expect to pay $16 to $20 for the smaller sizes.

I say this pot makes “espresso” because it’s not technically an espresso, which requires a different extraction than what the Moka pot offers. Consequently, one might say the Bialetti makes a “moka”, a “moka espresso”, or “stovetop espresso”. Still, it makes a respectably good cup.

To use the Bialetti, fill the bottom half with cold water up to the release valve, insert the basket full of coffee grinds, then screw on the top half. Place the pot over low heat, and wait for the water to boil the coffee up into the top chamber.

Some usage notes I’ve gathered from others on the Internet. (1) The Moka Express is designed to work with the coffee basket full. Therefore, use a pot size that is appropriate for your needs. Under-filling a 3-cup model to get a single serving will not work. (2) Do not pack the coffee grinds into the basket. This is not an espresso machine, and packing the grinds will prevent the water from passing though properly. (3) The grind of the coffee will affect the results. I’ve only recently bought my Bialetti, so I’ve only started experimenting with it. However, I’m told the Bialetti requires a grind more similar to a drip-coffee than an espresso grind. A typical espresso grind may be too fine for this pot, preventing water from passing through the coffee. (4) Your results will vary, depending on a variety of factors — bean variety, degree of bean roasting, grind level, etc.

Handpresso Wild

The Handpresso Wild

The second low-cost option for home-made espresso is one that a friend mentioned to me recently. The Handpresso Wild is a handheld device which requires pumping to reach the necessary pressures for extraction. Unfortunately, neither he nor I have ever used one.

The Handpresso works by inserting an espresso pod, hand-pumping it a number of times to reach 15 bars of pressure, adding some hot water, and pushing a button. In order to get hot espresso, you’ll have to boil water in a separate vessel first, then add it to the Handpresso capsule.

The Handpresso is an interesting idea. Expect to pay about US $120 for one.


I’m interested in hearing other people’s opinions of these devices, as well as other devices I should consider. I’m also interested in suggestions of books which can bring me up to speed on aspects of espresso — benefits of various extraction methods, varieties of beans, growing regions, roasting levels, etc.