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maximum-security espresso

I was at work yesterday afternoon and ran out of water to drink, so I went downstairs to refill the lab water-jug, as I often do in the normal course of things. In the public-area kitchen that is downstairs there is a dizzying array of coffee-making paraphernalia (all of which I ignore because I generally don't drink coffee unless I'm under extreme low-temperature duress) and you must navigate through it all to get to the sink.

Yesterday afternoon there was arrayed around the coffee things a group of about 6-7 people, one of whom was giving a lecture. It should be noted that while people often have loud conversations in the kitchen, they rarely give lectures. Beyond observing that oddity, I didn't pay much attention to the content. I excused myself as I dove straight through the group to get to the sink, where I carefully positioned my jug, etc., and turned on the water. I stared at the faucet stream and waited for the jug to fill up, but just as I was about to let my eyes unfocus and my brain zone out until the task was finished, the lecturer reached over next to me and unplugged the espresso maker, saying as he did this, "If you'll notice, one of the features of this machine is that it reboots when it loses and then regains power." He plugged the machine back in, at which point I had turned around and was staring at the little blinking lights on the espresso machine and wondering what an espresso machine had in its innards that would require hardware and software that could "reboot".

While I was staring at the lights, the lecturer suddenly flipped open a laptop that he had on another counter-top and started rapidly typing. "It's on the network now," he announced, hitting a few more keys. The audience was no help in making sense of this situation: everyone was passively absorbing everything he said, as if it made perfect sense. A retired Professor Emeritus who still hangs out at the department and falls asleep in a lot of the talks, an amusing guy, decided that he was suddenly interested in this lecture and he appeared at the edge of the group.

"Is the coffee grinder on the network too?" he asked, grinning. "You could tell it to communicate with the espresso machine to heat up the water in time."

"No, but you're right: we could use a sensor network," the lecturer said, completely seriously.

At this point, my water forgotten, I said, "Why does the espresso machine need to be on the network? So you can send a message to it to get your cup of coffee ready and then come down and pick it up in 10 minutes?"

The Professor Emeritus laughed. "Yeah, that would be great."

"No!" the lecturer said (much too passionately, it seemed to me). "It's so you're not authorized to make an espresso!" At my look of confusion, he said, "See?" and suddenly darted out his hand and hit a button on the espresso machine. It started humming and a different light blinked on. "You can't do that!"

I was surprised by his vehemence and I thought I might be treading on his "baby" espresso machine in some way, so I said, "That's okay...I don't drink coffee," and sort of took a step back. He turned away from me to continue his lecture at that point, evidently convinced that since I didn't drink coffee, I was no longer of interest. I felt like I was in some kind of parallel psycho-espresso-geek universe and it didn't make sense.

I stared at the button (which looked like an ordinary button to me), at him, and back at the button, and when he paused for breath, I said, "How is the machine supposed to know that you just hit the button and I didn't?" I made a brief disbelieving foray into James-Bond-esque science fiction: "Is it thumbprint-sensitive or something?"*

"Something like that," one of the audience members said.

The lecturer said, "Ah!" with great excitement and dug out his wallet. After a second he held up his University ID and waved it around the room for me and the audience to see. He pointed at a little white sticker on the back and said, "This is an RFID tag that looks like an ordinary sticker and I just put it on my ID. There is an RFID transponder in the espresso machine--" he gestured at the machine-- "and both the transponder and the RFID tag on this ID is ISO-18000-compliant!"

At this point, my brain was at least several degrees askew from reality and I raised my hand and said, "Um, question: WHY is the espresso machine under maximum security?" (I mean, I knew there was a training thing you had to attend to use the espresso machine, and there was a mailing list in the department for the espresso-drinkers, but this seemed way too paranoid even for this group.) The Professor Emeritus and some of the audience members laughed.

The lecturer didn't seem to understand my question and he stared at me for a second. I felt like I was violating some deep religious tenet that he held.

The same audience member who had spoken up before said, "This is a security testbed for an experiment we're doing in class."

Suddenly the universe righted itself and I felt like an ass for intruding. "Ohhh..." I said, hurriedly picking up my now-filled jug of water. "I'll just...get out of your way..." and I slunk out of the kitchen. My last memory is of that audience member grinning good-naturedly at me. (I later discovered that the guy was one of the new faculty members, so I felt like even more of an ass at that point, but the damage is past. :)

I went down to refill the jug again around noon today and the lecturer was there, making a hideous noise come out of the espresso machine (which I realized was him steaming/frothing the milk for his in-progress espresso). I apologized for breaking in on his lecture yesterday (his wife, who was present, chortled and said, "He'll give a lecture on anything, all the time. Don't worry about it."), and said, "I thought it was just a group of psycho coffee people, not a class project."

"Actually, that was sort of the point," he said. "I am a psycho coffee person." He was sipping happily from his fresh new espresso as I left the kitchen.

* The other possibility for why I couldn't use the espresso machine was that he was transmitting an ID in some fashion, but I figured that since he was standing as close to the espresso machine as I was, the machine would know that an approved ID was in the vicinity and would thus let whoever hit the button make an espresso because it couldn't possibly know whether or not the possessor of the ID was the one who actually had touched the button, unless the button itself was the security gate. I thus discarded the true explanation and went for the wilder one, which if you think about it, actually made more sense given the situation.


It's just the beginning; Sooner or later, we're all going to need to sign in to go outside. :-)



Yes, the privacy issues are a nightmare with the widespread use of RFID tags, but it'll probably start creeping in all over the place in the next decade.
Um, that was me. Forgot to login, sorry.
I still want to write a story set in the not-too-distant future, about the progression of this loss of privacy and the ability to track anyone electronically through a variety of means.

Go for it! :) Let me know when you do...I'd probably enjoy reading it.
Thanks. BTW, friended ya.

Ditto! I'm glad you eventually got an LJ account. :)
You laugh consternatedly (look, Ma, I'm making up words again!), but where I work, you have to tap your company ID on a panel to get the espresso/hot chocolate and soda machines to work. It doesn't cost anything, but it is in a rather public place and they're not really keen on spending thousands of dollars caffeinating the Great Unwashed.
I have been officially out-geeked.

And I'm feeling quite disturbed by this. I'm not sure why, all things considered. It's a COFFEE MAKER for heaven's sake. :)

Suffice it to say, your story has been incredibly amusing to my coworkers because now we know for certain that computer scientists will put electronic logic into even the most mundane of everyday objects.

Hey, coffeebeanben, if you're reading this... imagine rather than a maximum-security espresso machine instead a maximum-security Shopsmith! Oooooh. No no, MY power tools... :)


Glad you all enjoyed it. :)
Now I want to know how they guard the beans.

For without the beans, there is no espresso.

But this cracked me up. Thanks much. You made my day. :-)
...and your comment made mine. :) Thanks!

(I still fondly remember the AIM'ed conversation that you had with the tape backup server. :)
i think you deserve an espresso for all that stess
Thanks for the sentiment, but I tried espresso and the stuff is basically all the badness of normal coffee, but magnified several times over. :)
i don't like it much either
i tried it once or twice
and you should see me/my sister watching me pour packet after packet of sugar into it :)